'Contagion' Keeps Its Distance
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Steven Soderbergh's super-creepy "Contagion" does for pandemic what the Oscar-winning director did for drug "Traffic" back in 2000. Mimicking the insidious spread of coke-related ills, he tracks a lethal little virus -- bat-borne, then transmitted to a piglet -- as it metastasizes out of a friendly handshake to become a world-killer. A panic-worthy journey for sure, but no need to buckle up for fast-cutting, tension-building, apocalyptic action -- or anything else that might significantly raise your blood pressure. Less hysterical than hushed, more numbing than terrifying, "Contagion" is closer to documentary -- an imagined record of how global citizenry might realistically react to monumental crisis.
Says Soderbergh, "We were looking for something that was unsettling because of the banality of the transmission. In a weird way, the less you trump it up, the more unsettling it becomes."
Accordingly, the director paints his plague canvas with a muted palette that leaches heat and color out of potential melodrama; sometimes the very air seems dimmed, weighted with invisible death. Chronicling the mundane, almost slow-motion process of coping with pandemic, the movie's narrative engine runs cool rather than hot -- in contrast to "Outbreak," in which mild-mannered scientists morph into action heroes, questing for curative antibodies while fighting off trigger-happy generals.
"Contagion" has more in common with Michael Crichton's "The Andromeda Strain": Set underground in hyper-sterile laboratory environs, that chilly movie's action was mostly of the cerebral kind, featuring a quartet of dispassionate experts glued to microscopes, computer screens and observation windows, looking to decode a deadly, alien virus.
Similarly, this film's way of picturing catastrophic events is three clicks removed, like peering into a microscope, watching cellular warfare under glass. The cast is overstocked with attractive A-listers and Oscar winners or nominees -- Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, et al. -- but none stands out.
Soderbergh pulls a Hitchcock ("Psycho") by offing a lead early on; during the autopsy, that actress's iconic features are literally peeled away. He continues to subvert our pleasure in movie stars as warm, beautiful bodies, objects of subliminal desire: How can we fantasize about intimacy when human contact -- an embrace, a kiss, a sigh -- is fatal? Their charisma banked, the stars -- potential Petri dishes of infection just like regular people -- deliberately do not shine.
Quarantine puts the kibosh on those staples of the traditional disaster movie, loner heroics or Capra-esque communal activism. Emerging momentarily as a smart, no-nonsense health care organizer, the striking Winslet soon falls out of focus. Cotillard, as a World Health Organization doc, gets kidnapped in China, her ransom a supply of the curative vaccine. Distinctly unthrilling, this plot line peters out in anticlimax, an exercise in futility.
As End Times loom, Soderbergh spotlights, almost clinically, human selfishness and short-sightedness, the metabolism of everyday life. When a maverick researcher cracks the viral code, a rival scientist blurts, "Now he'll publish!" Nurses strike, bureaucrats argue budget, funeral homes turn away the dead, the government (as usual) fiddles while Rome burns. Action-movie addicts will jones in vain for some bigger-than-life villainy to offer escape from the enervating realism.
Reprising the structure if not the tempo of "Traffic," Soderbergh deploys a network of narrative threads to catch the inexorable spread and impact of infection: from the globe-trotting Patient Zero, to global health organizations desperately trying to find a cure, to food lines on the home front. The Internet, potentially a secure lifeline for the world's isolated souls, spreads another kind of lethal virus. A popular blogger, aptly named Krumwiede, unleashes a highly infectious meme about government: Big Pharma conspiracy and a cure called Forsythia. What's this cross between Andrew Breitbart and Michael Moore after? A killing in hedge fund futures! (Krumwiede's played by a snaggletoothed Jude Law, recalling his rodent self in "Road to Perdition.")
Soderbergh does provide some warm spots in his low-key vision of humanity in extremis. A father (Damon), bereft of wife and little boy, guards his daughter from contagion, sealing her off from even gestures of love. A high-level staffer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (Laurence Fishburne) gives a janitor's kid his own allotted vaccine. And, of course, there's one act of world-saving heroism -- but hey, the lady's hoping for a Nobel Prize. These moments don't pack much emotional punch, seeming almost like afterthoughts in Soderbergh's chilly laboratory of catastrophe.
Though far from a likeable movie, "Contagion" is admirable as a highly controlled, verging-on-Kubrickian exercise in directorial vision and style. What's most disturbing about this low-energy disaster movie is how tellingly it taps into America's current angst, the fear of a slow decline that can't be cured, all our heroes having succumbed to a plague of Krumwiedes.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.