September 12, 2011 by Vinnie Leduc
The film Outbreak severely traumatized me when I was a kid, doing for monkeys and epidemics what Event Horizon did to me for spaceships and Sam Neill. Despite the continued inability since the mid-’90s to wipe bloody-eyed patients and bloody eyeball-less astronauts from my movie memories, I tend to gravitate towards disease thrillers and space horror (hey, whatever makes for a memorable movie experience), so I had been looking forward to Contagion all summer, especially as a fan of many of Steven Soderbergh’s previous films.
The Oscar-winning director, who has had plenty of experience handling long lineups of big names (the Ocean’s trilogy) in addition to managing them through multiple overlapping subplots (Traffic), does so again in Contagion, an admittedly good movie that nevertheless left me disappointed overall.
I had no problem with the ensemble cast, which includes Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Winslet. But I felt like Soderbergh failed to fully utilize his galaxy’s star power and never gave them (maybe aside for Damon) the chance to shine. I expected some deeply gripping human drama à la Traffic, but I ultimately didn’t care too much about any of the characters. The emotional impact that Soderbergh delivered so well in Traffic occasionally got close in Contagion, but it never quite got there. It was all too impersonal.
However, the film is a great exposé on a very plausible what-if situation and how society and our governments would react to a pandemic. This is where the film is at its best, but ironically it’s also where it could’ve been so much scarier and thus better. Soderbergh covers all the bases in this regard, touching upon anti-vaccine fear-mongering and intra-community tension, strife, and distrust.
You know the drill: Riots. Stockpiling supplies. Neighbors at each others’ throats. Sprinkle in some shots of empty airport terminals, fill a deserted suburban street with trash bags, and presto: we’re meant to infer that major metropolitan cities have been hit hard by the virus. Where did the $60 million budget go? These scenes would’ve been impressive had Contagion been filmed on a tiny budget like that of Monsters, but it wasn’t! Zombie-ravaged Atlanta looked better in TV’s The Walking Dead. Instead, Contagion looked like a low-budget production and lacked the epic disaster scale it so desperately needed.
I can’t deny that Contagion IS a good movie, albeit flawed. Yeah, it was interesting, and yeah, I was into it the entire time (aided by another great score by Cliff Martinez). But it never got too crazy (to the level I had hoped for), and nothing in the film was memorable, bumping the anticlimactic film’s grade down a notch. It really reminded me of the Family Guy joke in which Brian acts as a seeing-eye dog for somebody watching The Blair Witch Project: “Nothing’s happening, nothing’s happening, nothing’s happening. It’s over. A lot of people look really pissed.” Including myself, which is why if anything, catch Contagion on video. Contagion gets 2.5 out of 5 stars or C+ or Okay.