I am none too familiar with the films of Steven Soderbergh - but unlike, say, Danny Boyle or Darron Aronofsky, I don't really wish to be more familiar. Partly because the stuff of his that I have seen haven't impressed me much (Erin Brockovich and Ocean's Eleven were alright, Out of Sight was a cypher, and Traffic was fascinating but cold), and partly because he doesn't seem as interested in genre as the other two indie-darlings-turned-mainstream-auteurs do. So yeah, I'm only interested in Soderbergh when he makes movies in genres that I dig, such as this new sci-fi drama-thriller. Incidentally, yes, Contagion is totally sci-fi, because a viral pandemic is a scientific event, and thus a fictional story about it is totally science fiction; as a fan of the genre, it annoys me how the term has been corrupted to mean "a totally outlandish tale not meant to be serious nor taken seriously".
Contagion is serious and scrupulously realistic. This is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness.
An American woman named Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from a business trip to Hong Kong to Minneapolis and her husband Mitch (Matt Damon), only to die from a mysterious illness. Thus begins a viral pandemic that spreads across the world and threatens to kill millions. CDC director Dr. Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne) assigns Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) into the field, but when she contracts the virus herself, his guilt leads him to commit an unprofessional act out of concern for his own wife Aubrey (Sanaa Lathan). Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) races to develop a vaccine. Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of the WHO investigates the origin of the virus in China, but her aide Sun Feng (Chin Han) may have more selfish concerns. Mitch Emhoff is immune, but his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) may not be, and they have to weather both a self-imposed quarantine as well as the rapid decay of social order - exacerbated by muckraking blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who spreads conspiracy theories about the virus at the same time as he pursues avenues to profit from it.
I have fond memories of Outbreak, that 1995 Wolfgang Petersen movie featuring Dustin Hoffman in his only role as an action hero. (Well, not really, the most strenuous thing he did was jump off a chopper onto a boat.) While that film may not hold up very well - owing to the facts that it's not very well-regarded critically, and that I was a somewhat over-excitable teenage boy at that time - I can't help but compare Contagion to it. Outbreak was a purely crowd-pleasing action-thriller, with jump-scare moments and a helicopter chase scene, and TMBF circa 1995 found it loads of fun. Contagion is a lot of things, but fun ain't one of them - not that that's a bad thing in this case, honestly.
What it's most similar to is in fact Soderbergh's own Academy Award-winning Traffic from 2000. It has the same sprawling scope (even moreso, with more characters and interconnected stories) and antiseptic approach to telling its story, not to mention a steadfast refusal to pander to the audience's baser tastes. It's a sci-fi film about a deadly global epidemic, but it's not a post-apocalyptic fantasy; in many ways, its a medical procedural about doctors and scientists trying to find a cure for the disease. And somewhere along the way it turns into a sociological study of how even the best and most dedicated people can be hampered by basic human weaknesses. Such as Cheever, whose mistake will cost him his career; Orantes, who is kidnapped by Sun Feng to be traded for a vaccine they think they could never obtain otherwise; Jory Emhoff, who risks infection because she is a typical teenage girl; and Krumwiede.
Who is very much the villain of the movie, in a movie that largely eschews movie conventions such as "villains". Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli don't seem to get him, but I do - I have had the misfortune of meeting people like him before. Conspiracy theorists, nutcases who believe everything in our lives has been manipulated by powerful evil people in shadowy boardrooms - or that the things and the heroes we revere were all lies perpetrated by those same evil string-pullers. They believe that nothing is good in this world, mankind is inherently evil, and the only logical conclusion to this belief is that there is no point in doing good and every reason to do evil. There is nothing hypocritical in Krumwiede's paranoid rants about Big Pharma profiteering from the vaccine while he does the exact same thing with an ineffectual homeopathic drug. He believes the world consists only of the ignorant, and those who prey on the ignorant, and thus has gladly decided to be one of the predators. "Nutcase" is too kind a word - the man is a vulture.
But I grind my axe too sharply over him, because his part is only one in the scope of this film. Which I felt is simultaneously too broad and too narrow. The Orantes story is the most underdeveloped; at one point she disappears for a good long stretch of time, and when we finally see her again it's after we've probably forgotten she was in the movie. And it's perhaps no coincidence that hers is the only one that takes place outside the U.S.; for a movie about a global epidemic, its scope is strangely confined to the States. When we are told how many millions have died, it comes as a bit of a surprise, since we never really see thousands of dying people or corpses. The CDC personnel are well-protected, and Mitch Emhoff is immune, so there isn't much suspense in who might get infected and die (the trailers already reveal that Mears does).
Still, when panic and misinformation become a greater danger than the virus itself - courtesy of goddamn Krumwiede - I did find it suspenseful, and that's why I put the Thriller label on this review. It's not a great film, but it's a well-made and worthwhile one - perhaps even a scary one, in its purely un-Hollywood depiction of what might really happen in the event of a SARS or H1N1-like outbreak that's a lot deadlier than both of those turned out to be. And hey, how about all those A-list stars in the cast? They're all expectedly excellent. Steven Soderbergh in indie mode isn't much to my taste, but Steven Soderbergh in mainstream mode makes films that are intelligent, thought-provoking and compelling - albeit somewhat clinical. (Pun fully intended there, yo.)
NEXT REVIEW: Nasi Lemak 2.0
Expectations: yay Namewee!