Contagion

Despite its all-star cast and entertaining direction, this story of epidemic is ultimately unmoving.

When Contagion’s end credits roll, we certainly feel horrified, carefully considering the reality of an epidemic and realizing how often we touch our faces and the objects around us, the very thing that spreads a fatal virus in this new thriller by Steven Soderbergh. The problem is, once all the thrills and chills finally wear off, we’re left empty—with nothing to contemplate and no emotion for the millions of people we’ve just seen killed on the screen. For that, Soderbergh’s film proves to be fine entertainment but terribly lifeless.

Starring nearly every A-list actor you can think of, the story follows an array of characters amid the global outbreak of a highly deadly, highly contagious virus. Matt Damon plays the protagonist, Mitch Emhoff, a family man whose adulterous wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) first contracts the virus in Hong Kong and brings it back to the U.S. This leaves a circle of government scientists—Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard and Jennifer Ehle—on a mission to find a cure before it’s too late. The antagonist, a charismatic journalist named Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), however claims the government has already found a cure but is holding out to make money, gathering quite a following in the process.

Up to this point, Soderbergh has always criticized big government and big corporations. Two of his films—Erin Brockovich and The Informant!—feature whistleblowers as their leads. But here he surprisingly does just the opposite, nearly praising the big man while attacking the little man. Soderbergh portrays Law’s whistleblower as a lying, selfish scumbag, even taking a few hits at journalism itself, and paints humankind as a wicked and violent breed. When the contagion spreads and the situation worsens—and millions of people suddenly die—humanity follows suit, panicking and behaving like animals in their fight to survive.
 
All this hysteria, of course, makes for a gripping ride, and Soderbergh captures it like the veteran director that he is. Besides keeping the film at an urgent pace, he showcases some fine shots of San Francisco, displaying a sense of artistry and scope, and uses his ridiculously impressive cast fairly well, especially given the number of performers involved. Though Damon gives a convincing turn as a loving and courageous father, Law stands out the most. His character doesn’t have much depth—no characters do—but he’s incredibly intriguing and provocative, not to mention funny. In a scene where he confronts a government scientist on national television, we almost begin to like him, until we later discover his motives.

Given such performances and the invasive atmosphere of suspense, there’s no denying Soderbergh has created one of the better thrillers of the year. Unfortunately, though, in the midst of doing so, he’s also created a moral vacuum. He weaves a few moral characters into his story, like Damon’s honorable family man —small glimmers of hope—but his film as a whole shows no concern for morality. It instills in us fear and chaos, merely for entertainment’s sake, and ultimately devalues human life. This is apparent in the millions of people who die and go unrecognized, while Soderbergh stays completely disinterested, and in the fact that, when all is said and done and the final sequence ends, we’re left disturbed yet unmoved.

David Roark is a film criticfor RELEVANT and Dallas Morning News. Check out his blog and follow him on Twitter.

6 Comments

Noah Farver

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Noah Farver reviewed…

Yeah good review. I fell the same about it.

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Alex B. reviewed…

Why does there have to be morality? Do we really want an otherwise excellent film to be bogged down in answering the human question? I think the ending leaves the question open to the audience and leaves it open for discussion, which I had with my friend as we walked out of the theater.

I thought it was an incredibly moving film, showing the amount of suffering and chaos that really would be sure to happen if a massive epidemic happened in today's society. You have the skeptics, the realists, the scientists and the ordinary citizens shown throughout the movie.

This articles does mention the A-listers, but what it doesn't explain is that this movie is also well-acted by every single one of them. It wasn't over the top. The ensemble performed beautifully, while the cinematography and the writing was especially brilliant.

However, I think the main point of the article is one that seems to overtake much of our thinking when it comes to movies. There MUST be some sort of moral ground in order for a movie to be good. This is wrong thinking. Why does a film have to have a moral to it? Can't we just enjoy for the sake of entertainment? Does there have to be a lesson learned after watching every movie? I certainly hope not, otherwise there wouldn't be much enjoyment of film for the sake of other important aspects.

This is something that I thought brought down the latest Narnia movie: the director had to have some sort of plot point that showed morality in the well-known characters and he ended up twisting and creating a storyline that didn't follow the script that the legendary author left for him. So, no, morality does not always have to be fused into every single film we watch. Contagion is great entertainment, with a well-written story that leaves a question for the audience to answer.

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Guest reviewed…

Alex,

Every story has an agenda or moral framework behind it. If you think anything is pure entertainment, with morals aside, you've only fooled yourself.

On a different note, C.S. Lewis, himself, said that he wrote the Narnia series so that, through Aslan, readers would come to know the Lord. He was very open about his evangelical motivations.

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Alex B. reviewed…

*This post may contain spoilers if you haven't read or seen "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader"*

Yes, but when we look only for moral value, especially in film, I think we lose a bit of what we're trying to accomplish. If a movie has terrible cinematography, terrible acting, terrible music, but great morality, is it a good or great film? Of course not. I'm not completely dismissing morals, especially since you're correct about them being the drive behind the writer's mindset. However, as viewers, to specifically watch a movie in order to get some lesson out of it is bordering on the ridiculous. If a movie has great acting, cinematography, and music, but has bad morals, is it a good movie? Its definitely possible.

However, when it comes to Dawn Treader, I cringed throughout the entire thing. They messed up the entire storyline. I understand Aslan's purpose, as well as the Pevensie children. But the "morality", the driving force behind the book was the transformation and redemption of Eustace, a brat from the beginning who changes for the better by the end of the book. Another main point is Reepicheep's longing for Aslan's country, wanting to be closer to his Creator forever. The other main plot point in the book is the maturation of King Caspian, who is still young (20's if I remember correctly) and has growing up to do. These life lessons should have shown up in the movie to great effect, along with the great adventures of the Lone Islands and the search for the lost Lords (NOT THE SWORDS, DANG IT!).

However, the movie execs decided they needed to focus on the Pevensie children, who had already had they're stories told in LLW, and a little in Prince Caspian. However, throughout the entire thing we see Edmund struggling with thoughts of the White Witch, and Lucy longing to be as beautiful as Susan, which was in the book but to not as great of lengths as the movie portrays. And the green mist portraying evil is just the dumbest thing they could have come up with. They had to have some sort of evil antagonist, where the journey and finding the End of the World was their main focus in the book.

What I'm trying to say is that a lot of the time, especially when we tinker with great works like "Voyage of the Dawn Treader", we see that morality completely takes over and the art of the original is left out to dry. Lewis left them a masterpiece, and the movie execs screwed it up. What needs to happen in Hollywood, and is what seems to happen in most well-done movies (e.g. Oscar Winners), is that art is created with morals infused. Writing a movie for the sake of overtly getting your point is across is not a good way to start out. I believe that morality can be talked about subtly and can be done right.

I just think that in a movie like Contagion, we don't necessarily need to pry apart the framework and look for every moral detail and hash it out. Its a great movie, with good to great acting, great cinematography, good music, and great storytelling. It also leaves the viewer answering the question for themselves instead of the film doing it for them, a technique that is way underused in most films these days.

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Mike Rogers reviewed…

I feel the movie is just another over the top attempt by the CDC and FDA to get people tovaccinate their children and themselves with unnecessary vacines.

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