by Steven Soderbergh
Hollywood often looks for its tension in the wrong places. They believe the key to keeping filmgoers perched upon the edges of their seats is flashy actions, state of the art visual effects and overblown fight scenes (Desolation of Smaug comes to mind). Some filmmakers, however, realize that there are movies that will require none of this.
Steven Soderbergh‘s Contagion is more or less the Argo of 2011. Like Argo, this film employs plausible and completely realistic scenarios to make itself more terrifying, and it works. Its focus is on the spreading of a lethal virus, its mystery is in how this virus started and its terror is in the way it affects the main characters. The first person (that we see, at least) to fall victim to this is Elizabeth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her death makes her a central figure in working out how everything started. The scene in which her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is informed of her death at the hospital is one of the greatest moments in the film. Any other Hollywood picture would more than likely try to ham this scene up and have Damon shout “NOO”, lash out at the doctors, cry exaggeratedly or do something else that’s not very realistic. Instead he just asks the doctor that gave him the news: “Well, can I talk to her please?” He doesn’t understand that his wife is dead.
That’s perfect. Not only is this so much more emotionally loaded than making it overly dramatic with a sad soundtrack or a hammy performance, but it also feels so authentic. Realism is what makes something sad and horrifying; not gimmicks, and I am so glad Soderbergh did this. It is a scene that I keep thinking about and the more I do, the more I admire it.
‘Contagion’ is an ensemble piece. Pick a favourite big name.
Contagion revolves around dozens of different characters who play some significant role in figuring out what’s going on. Maybe not Damon’s character so much, nor his teenaged daughter played by Anna Jacoby-Heron, but other than that we got Jennifer Ehle and Elliot Gould working on some manner of cure for the virus, Marion Cotillard trying to trace its origins as she suddenly gets kidnapped by her Chinese colleague (Chin Han) who has another purpose for her in mind, Jude Law sharing what secrets he can find to his conspiracy theorist blog, Kate Winslet investigating cases of the virus, ultimately getting herself infected, and Laurence Fishburne being in charge of most things involving all the aforementioned research and detective work. Even Bryan Cranston gets to be a part of the cast.
Another element that helps the realism of the movie is that there isn’t really a hero or a villain. Fishburne’s character discusses with other characters that the virus might be a bioweapon but there is no villain revealed to have done this at any point in the story. Chin Han kidnaps a woman, yes, but it becomes more forgivable once you find out what motivated him to do so. Also, in many other films, Jude Law’s conspiracy theorist character would probably turn out to be the only one who’s got everything figured out in the end. Thankfully, this isn’t really the case here.
But the concept that the horror of the movie primarily runs on is definitely the very real notion that anything can infect you. Every doorknob you turn, every room you walk through, every seat you touch; all these things can very well have been in contact with a dangerously sick person with no way for you to know for sure. Anywhere could be a trap. Anything could be invisibly contaminated but contaminated nonetheless. You don’t know where anything has been. Wash your hands often, is what I’m saying.
The more times I watch it, the more impressed I am by how good it is and how well it enthralls the viewer with its realism. I often think and wonder why I didn’t put this film on my “Top 7 Best Films of 2011” list. If I were to re-do that list today, I would most likely put Contagion in the place of, perhaps, Another Earth, which I realize in retrospect I didn’t actually like as much as I might have made it seem. I certainly don’t, contrary to what the list suggests, find it a better film than Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It’s a terrible list. I honestly contemplate removing it from my blog altogether.
If you haven’t seen Contagion, see Contagion. And don’t forget to wash your hands afterwards.
Chaos takes place.