Connect with us
Contagion film review
Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Film

Contagion Values Realism Over Cheap thrills

Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion at 10

The big news behind Contagion is its star-studded cast: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Marion Cotillard and Bryan Cranston.  While the performances are exceptional, perhaps lost in the name-dropping is director Steven Soderbergh, who navigates skillfully through enough storylines to make Robert Altman jealous.

As its title suggests, Soderbergh’s film tracks the inception and spread of an unknown disease throughout the world and the panic, paranoia, and finger-pointing that ensues.  It’s a frightening film, and the far-reaching reverberations and rapidity with which the disease spreads make it all the more so.  Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns take Contagion beyond a simpler Outbreak-type film through a journalistic, detached approach that at times feels more like reportage than fiction.

A series of enigmatic, nearly concurrent deaths take place across the world. Among the victims is Beth Emhoff (Paltrow), wife of Mitch Emhoff (Damon).  Damon’s character is the “man on the ground” in Contagion.  He’s the only uninvolved civilian and one of the most empathetic figures in the film.  Leading the investigation and the race to find a vaccine are Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne), head of the CDC, his new hire Dr. Erin Mears (Winslet), and CDC researcher Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle).

Warner Bros. Pictures

In China, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Cotillard) tracks Beth Emhoff’s whereabouts on the day of her suspected infection, while in England, blogger Alan Krumwiede (Law) stirs up controversy as he attempts to demonize the government through conspiracy-theory blog posts.

While the intertwined storylines are indeed impressive, and certainly bring this film far beyond microcosm and into a full-blown pandemic, they are also a slight hindrance.  Because we are really only given any significant time with two characters – Mitch and Dr. Cheever – it’s difficult to find a real anchor of sympathy. When Beth dies we feel for Mitch.  When Dr. Cheever’s fiancé is attacked, we feel for him.  However, when the disease systematically kills off other characters, some of them major protagonists, the deaths are viewed with a cold eye – zipping body bags and mass graves, no tears.

This is, perhaps, part of Soderbergh’s plan.  Contagion is certainly a thriller, but it’s not a race-the-clock, headlong adventure.  This is a film that values realism and paranoia before its fictional narrative and conventional genre thrills.

Soderbergh’s technique here is dominated by a few stylistic traits that contribute to the detached mood: more wide-shots than close-ups, techno-driven montage sequences, and short scenes that move rapidly from one to the next.  Maybe the largest contributor is his use of text at the beginning of certain scenes to track the evolution of the disease (and devolution of society).  The film begins with Day 1, moves past Day 100, and then ends again with Day 1 when the source of the disease is revealed.  These numbers, functioning as a countdown of sorts, further the cold feel, presenting it as a report that could well have been published by one of the CDC characters represented in the film.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Burns and Soderbergh have targets.  There are people to blame.  Through the constant merging and concurrent narrative threads big business, Wall Street, the shadow of governments and the blogosphere are all demonized as power-mongering, greedy entities.  Yet, writer and director are careful to humanize individuals and, with the exception of Law’s Krumwiede, who himself is representative of the power and danger of the Internet, most of the blame is laid at the feet of faceless bodies.  Even when Dr. Cheever goes selfishly beyond protocol to warn a loved one of an impending quarantine his actions are still ultimately condoned, and he redeemed.

Contagion’s power lies in its ability to effectively characterize a massive chain of cause-and-effect.  From the small (touching a glass) to the large (mob riots), the film posits that the infrastructure and moral code that our world relies on is flimsy.  It is optimistic in its view of those selfless individuals who rise above the hysteria, yet remains cautionary with its final, circular images.

Neal Dhand

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.

Now Streaming

Written By

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and Tilt Magazine. Host of the Sordid Cinema Podcast and NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as Sound On Sight. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pop Culture From All Angles

Sordid Cinema Podcast

Trending

Scream 5 2022 Review Scream 5 2022 Review

New Scream Drowns in References, but a Young Cast Saves the Film

Film

Who is still alive in Yellowjackets?

TV

Calendar Girls performing in a parking lot. Calendar Girls performing in a parking lot.

Calendar Girls: A Remarkable Debut About Reclaiming Your Life

Film

Scream (1996): Frightening, Gory, Simply Amazing

Film

The Righteous Gemstones season 2 The Righteous Gemstones season 2

With A Heavenly Double Feature, The Righteous Gemstones Makes Its Glorious Return

TV

BOB SAGET BOB SAGET

Remembering Bob Saget’s Most Memorable Roles

TV

The Book of Boba Fett Chapter 3 episode review the streets of mos espa The Book of Boba Fett Chapter 3 episode review the streets of mos espa

The Book of Boba Fett Chapter 3 Makes The Wrong Moves

TV

Archive 81, Pictured: Mamoudou Athie Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert/Netflix © 2021 Archive 81, Pictured: Mamoudou Athie Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert/Netflix © 2021

The Analog Terror of Archive 81

TV

Euphoria Season 2 Premiere: Rue the Day!

TV

Generation Landslide Generation Landslide

Generation Landslide: Why Do We Like/Hate What We Do?

Culture

Peacemaker Peacemaker

Peacemaker Skewers Machismo and Layers Out its Antihero

Film

For He Is a Liar and the Father of Lies For He Is a Liar and the Father of Lies

The Righteous Gemstones: “For He Is a Liar and the Father of Lies” Muddies the Holy Water

TV

Connect