Nothing Spreads Like Fear
Sunday, September 11, 2011
For San Diegans, "Contagion" (opened September 9 throughout San Diego and in select theaters in IMAX) comes after dealing with a widespread power outage. But the sense of the normal giving way to uncertainty informs both.
"Contagion" is Steven Soderbergh's art house answer to films like "Outbreak" and "Quarantine." If Hollywood and B-horror film sensationalize the problem of a global outbreak of a lethal virus, "Contagion" brings a calm reasoned voice to the subject. So the film ends up being a subdued wake up call, a film that prompts panic but then assures you that things will return to normal-- but only after tens of millions, perhaps even hundreds of millions die. It kind of reminds me of George C. Scott's line in "Dr. Strangelove." When asked what the cost in lives of a nuclear war would be he says, "Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks."
Soderbergh's film starts abruptly. Before any images come up we hear coughing and our attention is immediately turned to something we hear all the time and barely notice but the thing that in a very short period of time will lead to a global epidemic. So we are then introduced to Beth (Gwenyth Paltrow) who is coughing and then touching a bowl of peanuts, a glass, a counter, her credit card... The title informs us it is Day 2. Subsequent titles list the city and population of each place we are taken to and we follow all those that had contact with Beth. The film starts simply, quietly, but with a sense of urgency that is going unnoticed by the characters in the film. We end up in the offices of the Center for Disease Control, following field officers trying to find ground zero, tailing a World Health Organization worker, and locked up in a house with a father trying to keep his daughter from infection.
The film shows how quickly a virus can spread. We rarely think about the ways, about how many things we touch and how many people we come in contact with. To me disease/contagion scenarios are truly scary ones because they are so rooted in the real world and when we get down to it, doctors really know so little. Just as we come to expect electricity to always be there when we flip a light switch or plug in a computer, so too have we grown complacent about a possible global pandemic. The fact that the Swine Flu didn't become an epidemic only reinforces that sense that doctors and governments overreacted. But what will happen when another pandemic hits?
Soderbergh tries to address multiple aspects of a global pandemic: how quickly it can spread, how doctors/scientists quickly try to cope with the problem, how government organizations try to help, how politicians try to hinder, how certain people try to profit, and how people take different approaches to survival. "Contagion" covers a lot of ground and tries to keep a balanced perspective by seeing what could go right and what could go wrong. Soderbergh smartly casts some well known performers and then has no problem killing them off early, which helps to convey a sense that anyone is vulnerable (audiences tend to feel that stars won't die at all or at least not till the end). He also shows that the government can do good in times of need as well as fail, and that people are capable of both good and bad in troubled times. The scenario played out in most movies depicting some kind of outbreak always assumes that chaos will result and people will resort to rioting, looting and violence in an every man for himself mentality. That makes for the best drama but "Contagion" suggests that while normalcy will give way to some chaos order will return. There will be a heavy death toll but life will go on and return to normal.
A day after seeing "Contagion" I still feel an ambivalence toward it. Soderbergh crafts a tight film but I'm still trying to decide if his tone was effective. I feel like I should have felt more fear over such an epidemic, that I should have left feeling more concerned. And yet I appreciate that he didn't sensationalize and didn't try to create a sense of panic. In a sense he tries to counter what the film's tag line warns us about: "Nothing spreads like fear." So "Contagion" comes across as a cool, reasoned film about something that could be terrifying. Soderbergh shows social order breaking down, people being buried in mass graves, massive evacuations, yet all of these things are played out with understated matter of factness. As if he's saying, prepare yourself for all this but have faith that all will be returned to normal. We will weather this as humanity eventually made it through the Black Plague, The Spanish Flu, and other health crises. What I ultimately admire about the film is that Soderbergh has crafted a story that makes you think rather than panic.
As always, Soderbergh has a solid tech crew behind him. Scott Z. Burns contributes a compelling script; Stephen Mirrione's editing is efficient and well paced; and Cliff Martinez' music sets the tense mood but never serves up cheap emotional punctuation. Soderbergh himself is credited as cinematographer and the film is well shot. As for the cast, Jennifer Ehle stands out as a dedicated doctor who wants no fanfare for her work, and Laurence Fishburne brings humanity to a CDC official who chooses to place his family before duty.
"Contagion" (rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language) is a smart, well made film that taps into fears without resorting to cheap sensationalism or melodrama. You may also leave the theater taking note of how many things you touched while you were there and how each point of contact -- the bathroom door or faucet, the money or credit card used, the straw you took from the dispenser, the arm of your chair -- could potentially be how a disease or virus could be spread. I suggest bringing some Purell.
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