Armed with preconceptions of a psychologically fuelled and dystopian drama, this medical thriller certainly delivered under the directive eye of Steven Soderbergh. Having directed films like Ocean’s Eleven, his latest work was packed with just as much kick and finesse, but its sudden and inconclusive end was a strange finish to what had previously been a contagious virus devouring millions worldwide in its ravishing struggle for world domination. And world domination in Contagion really is no exaggeration. This virus spread quicker than the black plague. Killing over 67,000 only a few days in, its magnitude is captured with uncompromising accuracy and we see two actresses, Kate Winslet and Gwyneth Paltrow, go through absolute hell before the film even reaches its climax.
There is a brilliant collective wealth of talent on offer here. From Matt Damon to Jude Law, every character is brought to life with impeccable accuracy and so we never doubt the credibility and convincingness of moves made and sentences spoken. Aside from the action-packed content of destruction and bewilderment, there were moments of startling and moving reaction. Take Mitch Emhoff, a central character played by Matt Damon, who helped to bring an emotional depth to a harrowing denouement of worldwide infestation. His daughter’s prom night, for instance, was heart-warmingly recreated in their bolted up living room amidst violent panic on the streets. Added to this, the use of various government officials and secret intelligence groups reiterated the seriousness state of affairs across the globe, and helped to substantiate the growing petrified horror expressed by the infested population.
Yet, in amongst all this tension, and despite brilliant acting, there were undeniable similarities to other works. Certain contextual references we can forgive, like headed days “one”, “two” and “three” signifying stages of development across the screen, which had been blatantly borrowed from Verbinski’s rendition of The Ring. These can be forgiven because they are common modes of visual description, used as an aid to the underlying tension – not substance of – the plot. But the plot itself can be seen as slightly problematic. There were some aspects to this film which made us question its authenticity and identity a bit more intensely. The idea of a dystopian society facing growing attack from an infestation or alien body, for instance, has been exercised in a plethora of past productions. The frantically paced fight for survival in Contagion is closely associated and exercised in TV dramas like 24 and – going back to the nineties – Millennium. On top of this, we have War of the Worlds, where Tom Cruise protected his daughter against all odds in the face of alien invasion (forget the tripods and strange muffled vices, and you have Emhoff and his daughter emulating this deliberately macho portrait perfectly).
But despite these similarities, Contagion was an intensely enjoyable and riveting piece of filmmaking. Let’s try and forget the contextual links, and focus on its own merit. Its dystopian and evocatively atmospheric portrayal perfectly illustrated a world under attack. Like a country at war, defeated and deserted, airports were frozen, looters were shooting the innocent. A chaos infested civilisation. We all feel better after watching a horrific event that stays safely on the screen, it may be terrifying and grossly intense at times, with graphic portrayals of brain surgery and the faces of those finally grasping their doomed fate, it emits that kind of schadenfreude feeling. We take a kind of morbid curiosity in the disaster-ridden plot (or maybe that just makes me highly sadistic and you, raising your eyebrows and shaking your head, conversely sane).
Well, regardless, it’s clear this film is an explicitly realistic portrayal of the infestation and denouement of the human race from a scarily realistic and relatively unbeatable disease. We know it’s not real and we can comfortably lean back and take it all in. Knowing that infection spreads quicker than flames, we are comfortable in the knowledge that for once watching Soderbergh film we understand the plot.
However, this disease is nipped too early in the bud. The ending came out of nowhere. From a scenic mass handout of a developed immunisation vaccine to the world’s population, we are suddenly transported to a panned out camera lens blacking out the screen. It actually backs out of its own action. There are no spoilers in this review because there simply isn’t a spoiler at the end. But then again, what did we expect? Contagion evidently wanted to leave an urgent situation in the middle of its progression, as if telling us that outbreaks of viruses can never fully be contained. And this might, just might, be the most realistic way to conclude such an inconclusive virus on the big screen. It’s certainly different to other disaster movies of its time in this respect and that strengthens its resolve even further.