Thursday, September 15, 2011

Contagion (2011)

Overall Score: 7.00/10

Ensembles are a tricky business. When done correctly they can become the magnum opus epic their creator so wishes to create. When done incorrectly they can feel disjointed, jarring, and unintelligible. Then there are those which fluctuate in the middle. Those ensemble works that fluctuate between greatness and sporadic, and unfortunately Contagion dips into the latter a tad too often.

Contagion takes the age old Hollywood premise and thrusts it into the modern world. What happens when a deadly, highly contagious virus enters society? Throwing a more realistic spin on the issue than your usual "I'm Mr. Evil General and I want to blow up the city" that has latched onto this plot line more times than I care to count (granted the number is probably around 3), King of Sporadic Quality, Steven Soderbergh, carefully crafts such a scenario. With fine attention to the various details involved, and some well placed reminders of social impact, Soderbergh is able to create tension in what could easily be construed as a crash course in Biology.

For my money the real heart and soul of Contagion lies on the shoulder of Matt Damon. Not only is he the character with the majority of the screen time, he's also the only character not wrapped up in the scientific and political narrative. In a sense, he's meant to represent the viewer. What would happen if you or I were to go through this scenario. The average man thrust in a world of uncertainty and chaos. And I have to admit it, if Soderbergh had made the entire film on just him I think this movie would have been inching closer to that coveted 9 rather than wrestling around in the 7 range.

The problem for me is, it didn't have to be that way. Kate Winslet is geared up for the emotional scientist point of view but she's out of sight and out of mind too often, and is cut off just as she's starting to gain traction. Marion Coitillard is next on the emotional bandwagon, but just as she enters an emotional setup scenario. The plot is left hanging, only to reemerge briefly in the end with none of the dots in the middle to make the necessary connection. Not to mention the incredibly apparent flatness of the emotions portrayed in her plot, even though many of the characters are dealing with deep personal issues. So that really just leaves us with Lawrence Fishburne whose plot wavers back and forth between some kind of interesting politics and decent emotional investment. He's definitely the forerunner for the next real honest connection, but his plot is sporadic at best.

He also becomes a big representative of Soderbergh's primary fault in Contagion - after the fact character building. I can think of several scenarios in this film where a character the audience is well familiar with will be in the middle of an emotional/important conversation with someone that the audience has no clue about. And not until after the conversation or towards the middle of it do we find out who that person is. It's hard to gain emotional traction when you can't relate to the levity of the situation. Sure this might work in a bubble for a twist, but the scenes aren't set up that way and I don't think it is what Soderbergh had in mind.

So what does that leave us with? Well there is Gwyneth Paltrow but she is more of a catalyst than a real player. Which puts us in the hands of Jude Law. I like what Law does here. He's a villain that's not really that villainous. More so the kind of blogger I try my best to distance myself with. In other words he's a narcissistic, arrogant arse of a human being. He comes to govern a strong shift in society to not trust the government with any task that influences their life. But more so than that he represents the lengths to which people will go to benefit from that mindset.

While it would be quick and easy to label the quality of Law and Damon's plots indicative of the overall quality of the film, one would forget the sheer number of half realized ideas floating about among all the other plot lines. That the aggregate quality of all the stories comes out positive does imply that in order to get the pudding you're going to have to deal with a few plain salads. A few stories which we might forgive their brevity due to their relative importance, but all the same often stumble about before they get to where they were going.

Soderbergh has a keen eye, and can create an environment for any story to thrive, but this one struggles to outweigh its lackluster moments. The monotone delivery of too many lines by too many actors who ought to know better doesn't bring things to life. It doesn't make the scenes more realistic. So he leaves us with the films few real emotional moments to hold onto. Reminders of what might have been.

Film Credits:
Directed By: Steven Soderbergh
Written By: Scott Z. Burns

6 better thoughts:

Mette said...

So this I won't be spending my money on... thanks for the warning. I mean, it doesn't sound completely bad, but still.

Castor said...

Seems like a common thread in all the reviews I read. Lack of emotional punch. I'm surprised that you deemed the acting to be deficient given the cast though.

Univarn said...

@Mette It isn't completely bad, I just tend to harp on the negatives of a film when my "this could have been great" sense is tingling throughout.

@Castor It may have just been me but during the none tear jerker moments I really felt too much line delivery was flat. This was especially evident to me in the Marion Coitillard plot line.

Candice Frederick said...

i agree. i liked the movie, but i was torn with the lack of emotional investment for each character. but, as you said, matt damon provide the only salvation to that point.

Anonymous said...

Contagion becomes a battle between what it is and what it could have been. It satisfies just enough to warrant its existence while frustrating one with its potential. Nice review.

Chase Kahn said...

The film's cold, unemotional, rigid tone is certainly intentional until the final scenes in Damon's closet. I think it's no-frills procedural rhythm is kind of a take-it-or-leave-it proposition that I fully embraced - I was attached to the filmmaking.

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