Review: Contagion

This movie had been on my must see list for a while by the time I sat down to watch it. I was mainly attracted by three things: the cast, director and subject matter. Infectious disease epidemic movies always have the potential to be good thrillers just by the nature of the story and because they can be (unfortunately) a mirror onto real life events. 

I will point out that when I watched this (several months ago) I was recovering from a cold and I could hear another person in my household coughing away, me having graciously passed it onto them, so the atmosphere was ready made for the subject matter.

Contagion tells, at its core, the relatively simple story of an infectious disease epidemic that strikes the globe, the battle to develop a cure or vaccine and how the world and society reacts to such an event. It has multiple story strands involving a number of characters, ranging from the ordinary man, woman and child affected in society, the scientists working towards a cure, government authorities trying to control and maintain order and so on.

Let’s start by saying that this is not an original story – it has been presented before, notably with Outbreak in 1995 (just Google infectious disease movies and you will see what I mean). So it was interesting that the plot was used again. Perhaps there was a case of something nasty in the populous at the time that made it more topical (the SARS epidemic was in 2002 a few years before this was made and Ebola has occurred intermittently throughout the 2000’s), at least enough to make another movie and to attract such a stellar cast.

Matt Damon, Gwenyth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould – these are big names – not to mention the fact that the director was Steven Soderbergh, the man responsible for Out of Sight, Ocean’s Eleven, Erin Brockovich and Magic Mike. So it has heavyweight star power.

But to be brutally honest, I can’t see what would have attracted such a group to this film.

Why’s that you ask?

Many of the characters were very underwritten, with no one being given enough time to develop a connection with the audience or a deep story with anyone else within the movie. This lack of emotional depth made it feel very clinical. When I watched it, I found it interesting but not involving. I should have felt fear, apprehension, sadness, panic, foreboding, disgust, frustration – all the emotions that would come with such a scenario but they were absent. People died terrible deaths including children but I didn’t feel compelled to mourn or have a sense of loss.

The only person that got any kind of reaction out of me was Jude Law’s character and that was because he was such a toad, albeit a believable one. But even his conspiracy theorist blogger plot line had its issues. How had he broken the law and what was the deal with the hedge fund guy (if that was what he was – I wasn’t very clear) all about? They (whoever they were) paid him four million dollars for what? Wouldn’t money have no value in the traditional sense if society was breaking down? Also, he was supposed to have all this influence – twelve million followers – but he seemed to operate in isolation and I got no sense of the power he was wielding. You could be forgiven for thinking that he was a lone man wandering around the streets ranting and preaching to no one.

Some of the characters disappeared from the screen for large sections of the film. While this worked perfectly fine for some, for others it felt illogical, the most glaringly of these being Marion Cotillard. I felt the reason for her removal to be wholly unbelievable and silly. And why cast such a talented woman in such a paper thin role? That question could be applied to most of the main players though. I’m not sure if this was the fault of the script or something else. Was it specifically written that way, with broad very thin brush strokes, or was it meant to be longer and cut down in post production. The movie came out at only an hour forty long so they had a lot of story to get through and as a result, good characterisation was abandoned. The movie could easily supported another hour of storytelling.

This time constraint also meant that the societal effects of the epidemic were very under explored and given what felt like lip service. The break down of law and order. The shortage of food and other necessities of life. Mass panic and hysteria among a frightened population. The collapse of normal everyday existence. We got brief glimpses such as trash strewn streets, home invasions by gun wielding masked men or a stampedes at a food and medicine distribution stations but not enough to give it a truly gritty realistic feel. I didn’t get any feeling desperation, or of the total chaos that was just around the corner. It felt like what it was – a Hollywood imagining of the situation rather than an attempt to show the real life ugliness as it would happen. 

I firmly believe that this story should have been a limited series format – three or four episodes of ninety minutes in length –  which would have given the opportunity for greater depth in every aspect of the story telling. Much more could have been made of the talent that’s for sure. I mean I would have loved to have seen the emotion and humanity within Matt Damon’s character as he dealt with the death of his wife and step son while still trying to preserve a day to day life for himself and his daughter. 

And we got a very quick wrap up with no comment on how such an event would affect the survivors. How would towns, communities, cities, regions, countries deal with the aftermath, not just on a practical level but a psychological level. Millions dead. Families broken. Beliefs decimated. Trust shattered. That was missing and as a result the movie felt unfinished in a way and was very disappointing not to mention smacked of laziness.

Another aspect of the storytelling that made me a little uncomfortable (and I could be reading more into this) was that Asians (Chinese in particular) were the ones that provided the example of underhand behaviour regarding a response to the disease in the form of the kidnapping of a WHO representative to use as a bargaining chip to ensure preferential treatment when a cure was found. Now I know that this was an American made movie so obviously the story would be told from their perspective but I still felt ill at ease with the message it was sending. Again I think this is weak writing. Falling back on a trope because it was easy. With a little more imagination and effort it could have been done better and fairer.

I would also like to point out that while there was a marked absence of gore for an infectious disease movie, there were two scenes that could prove to be upsetting for different reasons.

There is an autopsy sequence on Gwyneth Paltrow’s character which made my stomach turn.  While not being as graphic as it could have been, there was more than enough suggestion of what was happening to bring on queasiness. And early in the film there is a shot of her character’s son dead in his bed. The image of a deceased child is always distressing and this was no exception. While these are fleeting moments it’s important watchers should be aware of what they will see.

Summing up … 

I feel like I’m making the movie sound like the worst movie ever made. It wasn’t. It was a solid, unspectacular, if somewhat lazy effort at portraying this scenario. Like I said earlier it kept my interest but was very much a case of missed opportunities.

Rating: 3 stars

Watched: 29 September 2019.

(Header Image: Skitterphoto)

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