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Epic Disaster

Soderbergh’s disaster flick clumsily steps back

September 21, 2011, 1:00 am

Contagion is the name of the film because it’s also the name of the most developed character. That might seem unfair to the other characters, but it’s the nature of the disaster movie beast. Individual screen time is limited for reasons of general inclusiveness and because, since this is a film about a highly lethal and highly communicable virus, the other characters tend to die off anyway. Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet respectively play an epidemiologist, a paragon of endurance, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention boss, an alarmist blogger, a first casualty and a damage controller. But contagion—that is, both the deadly disease and the spreading thereof—is the proper star of Contagion.

Rest assured, with this also being a Steven Soderbergh film, sudden deadness is no reason for a person to disappear. The Soderbergh touch often includes tinkering with narrative cause and effect by running time backward or in little Mobius loops, often to the tune of slick, propulsive music by Cliff Martinez. The director seems to relish the challenge of tweaking time within the medium of film, for which unidirectional plot progress is the essence. Screen titles keep us abreast of the outbreak chronology, but in a typically Soderberghian coup de grace, we don’t see day one until the end.

Those little switchbacks even slip into the dialogue as expressions of shock and grief. In one memorable moment, Damon’s character gets some bad news from a doctor and just presses right on with perfunctory questions before the news has sunk in. Contagion’s screenwriter is Scott Z Burns, who also saw Damon through Soderbergh’s The Informant! Burns, too, seems keen on a challenge here—namely, the reconciliation of less-is-more storytelling with one of those stories in which half the characters exist only to explain things to the other half, who exist only so the audience can overhear the conversation.

In Contagion, that tension might be allegorically useful: The film’s theme has to do with the modern perils of accelerated exposure—to disease, to information, to diseased information. It’s meant to be telling, amid the vortex of disembodied newscaster narration and texted emoticons, that “social distancing” is suggested as containment strategy. Certainly, hysteria—be it paranoia of germ pandemics or soul-eating solipsism—isn’t Soderbergh’s style. He’d rather stay fashionably aloof.

So maybe it’s no wonder that Contagion’s true star, although omnipresent, is also a tad coy. It requires several spokespeople. The best is a researcher played by Jennifer Ehle, whose revelatory dignity makes every procedure-narrating thing she says seem to merit attention. Other context keepers, including John Hawkes, Bryan Cranston and Elliott Gould, hover at the periphery, witnessing the disaster.


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