Steven Soderbergh's surprise, ensemble-cast hit Contagion is probably going to be a fringe Oscar contender and nothing more, but after a summer in which the movie landscape was filled, for the most part, with unwatchable schlock, it was a crisp, autumnal breath of fresh air.
More than that, though, its hyper-realism made its audience think like few films we've ever seen. Rushing through your mind as the MEV-1 virus ravages the globe are moments of panic and terror as the virus moves faster than the scienctists, anxiety as you realize something like this could happen all too easily and self-reflection as you wonder what you would do if it does.
Indeed, it's hard for me to think of a movie-viewing experience that was even somewhat similar to enduring Contagion's 106 minutes. And I mean enduring in the best sense of the word; you feel like you've been through the MEV-1 ordeal yourself by the time the credits roll -- at the very least you'll stop touching your face for a few days.
Anyway, that makes it very hard to shoehorn a Contagion review into a traditional format, so instead I've got a smattering of random thoughts still swirling around my mind a week or so after I took in the movie. Here goes nothing ...
1. Contagion is the best horror movie of 2011.
It might not seem like a horror movie at first. Monikers like thriller and suspenseful drama come to mind when you think of the movie superficially. In truth, it doesn't fit into a genre neatly. But it is genuinely scary because it is so realistic -- a fact scientists have lined up to confirm since the film was released.
The forces that tend to drive the emergence of new diseases -- rapid global travel and migration of human and animal populations, a complex and interconnected worldwide food chain, to name only two -- have only accelerated.
Contagion hits these points with near-documentary accuracy and precision. Like SARS, the fictional pathogen in the film begins in Asia and travels rapidly by plane to other parts of the world. Effectively intertwining different individual and public health perspectives starting with Gwyneth Paltrow's opening cough, the film shows us both the worried ill and the worried well in her family members and co-workers. ...
The science is uncannily true, with rare exceptions. An epidemic like the one described in the film will almost certainly occur, though we can't predict the details. The notion that an agent like Nipah virus, a pathogen shared by bats, pigs, and humans and presumably the model for the virus in the movie, will break out of its niche and cause widespread disease is very believable.
The last two sentences should send a shiver up your spine even if you haven't seen the movie. If you have, it'll quickly dawn on you just why this is such a scary proposition -- beyond the ostensible realism. To state the obvious, MEV-1 is a faceless and merciless killer. That means there is no warning and no reprieve once you start to cough.
The scenes we're presented with in Contagion are eerily similar to the ones we're treated with in every new zombie iteration that hits the silver screen. Civilization has come unhinged. Remaining survivors have vacated the streets, boarded up their windows, stockpiled supplies and so on. There's just one thing missing from Contagion, and that's the zombies of course.
Unbeknownst to most viewers, those grotesque, reanimated corpses of the undead actually provide us with a strange comfort. After all, at least you can see that virus chasing you down the street and stop it cold with a blast to the face from a sawed-off shotgun. Contagion offers no such comfort, no clear escape route, no plain understanding of your fate, and that is truly chilling.
2. Speaking of zombies, Contagion is a great model for how the World War Z adaptation should be executed.
Fans of the source material for Brad Pitt's World War Z -- Max Brooks' novel of the same name -- have expressed disappointment in recent weeks as the plot details of the film adaptation have leaked out.
More specifically, they're upset that the plan is for the movie to abandon the anecdotal, interview-based structure in the book, which bounces the reader around the world to give a comprehensive picture of the zombie outbreak, in favor of a linear plot that follows Pitt as he races against time to the ease the rising tide of a pandemic.
Up until I saw Contagion, I was forgiving of the decision to go in that direction, if not thrilled about it. Closely following the plot of Brooks' World War Z in the space of just 120 minutes or so seemed like a nigh impossible (and quite cumbersome) burden. But Soderbergh showed it was possible to do it, and do it very well, with Contagion, because that's almost the exact structure of the movie.
3. The main character in Contagion is the MEV-1 virus, and somehow this works.
If you had pitched me that exact premise before the movie, I would have had two reactions -- disbelief and a decreasing desire to actually go out and see the movie. But "you" didn't. So I was left to make that discovery for myself, and, more surprising, was left to discover that it actually made the movie stronger.
It's an all-the-more-amazing feat because there is so much headlining talent in the cast, from Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow to Kate Winslet to Marion Cotillard to Laurence Fishburne.
But really, if the virus isn't the main character throughout Contagion, then who is? I suppose you can make an argument for Damon or Fishburne. I'd argue instead that the characters, even the significant ones who seem like lead actors, are merely vessels for explaining the effects of the virus itself and its impact on humanity. At the end of the day the MEV-1 virus is the only truly common thread throughout the film.
This seems like an obvious fact, but how often in movie history have you been able to say that something that isn't even considered a single-celled organism has a starring role?
4. Just how did the lights and heat stay on?
If you're looking for plot holes, I'd start here. As MEV-1 is causing society to crumble, leaving death, destruction and violence in its wake and necessitating quarantines and rationing, somehow the lights always stay on in Damon's Minnesota home. So too, presumably, does the heat, because Damon and his daughter never utter a peep about being cold.
It seems to me that your utilities would be among the first things to go in the event of a pandemic, unless we're assuming that your local power company workers are immune from the disease.
This doesn't ruin things, by the way, but in a movie that's so explicity designed to get you to think holistically, this train of thought gets a little bit hard to ignore.