Contagion (2011)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Scott Z. Burns

With the news that director Steven Soderbergh would be retiring from making films, I was immensely interested in cherishing one of his last works, potentially, Contagion. It is surprising to hear of Mr. Soderbergh’s retirement given his relatively young age, 48, and his great success in his career. Soderbergh has been nominated for 3 Oscars, including 2 Best Director nods back in 2001 (Traffic, Erin Brockovich), winning for Traffic. But he has also directed the Ocean’s trilogy and the great Out of Sight. And the idea behind the film, the breakout of an unknown disease, not dissimilar to SARS or H1N1, is an interesting premise for a film, especially given Soderbergh’s style behind the camera.

The film follows a star studded cast through the drama and suspense created by an outbreak of an unknown disease. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the first to contract the disease and die from it, setting off her husband (Matt Damon) and the US and world’s health organizations to track down the origin and a vaccine before the disease spreads too far. Laurence Fishburne is the head of the Center for Disease Control, Kate Winslet is one of his field agents who looks for answers, Jude Law is a freelance journalist who runs a somewhat sensationalist blog about the epidemic, and Marion Cotillard plays a WHO officer who is kidnapped in Hong Kong, where investigating the outbreak, by a village looking to obtained vaccine for the disease. Oh, and John Hawkes.

There really is a big cast of characters and a lot going on and that aspect has its positives as well as its negatives. The negatives are strange to think about because it is often the reverse of what happens here, but the film fails when it tries to get personal. With so many characters, which are required for the story trying to be told here, Soderbergh loses sight of any emotional weight any of the characters potentially carry when he attempts to infuse any personal anguish or hardship past the general feeling of despair felt by the entire cast. The most obvious case of this is the kidnapping of Marion Cotillard’s character, who is not given enough background to merit such a subplot, or to merit any real connection to her character or struggle. In reality it is the villagers who abduct her with whom you sympathize because they are looking to save their people, which brings me to the strong aspect of the large cast. The film also seems less concerned with time than it perhaps should be and as a result it wraps up much too quickly in my opinion.

An ensemble like this is perfect because with the struggle of humanity to contain a dreadful and fatal disease, the human condition is toughed upon and done so with great effect by Soderbergh. By painting with broad strokes, and in fact having his characters use a good amount of technical jargon the average person would have no idea how to decipher, Soderbergh crafts a hopeless experience. Not only is the film commenting on the spread of germs and disease, but by throwing in a blogger and showing the general frenzy created by the littlest of things, the film is also taking the meaning to a more general sense of the danger of the spread of an idea, or perhaps not the danger, but the ability for an idea to spread, especially given the high levels of globalization and social networking today.

As with all Soderbergh films, there is also a high level of technical achievement. The two areas that stand out most are the cinematography, captured by the director himself, and the musical score, which was composed by Cliff Martinez. The electronic sound of the film and the unique perspective Soderbergh gives it really channel the type of medical thriller this film is. It is a true shame that such a talented filmmaker would be calling it quits, though hopefully it will just be a sabbatical. A film like this proves his ability. Even if it has its flaws, it also has its lure thanks to some really unique and imaginative approaches to storytelling taken by Soderbergh. His all star cast is great in the film too, though perhaps they did create one or two too many given, I’m sure, the high demand by A-list actors to join the cast.

 

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