Friday, September 9, 2011

Movie Review: "Contagion" (2011)

One of the big stories in Stephen King world this summer was the announcement that director David Yates and writer Steve Kloves -- both fresh off multiple triumphs with the last few Harry Potter films -- had signed on the line that is dotted with Warner Bros. to bring a multi-film adaptation of The Stand to cinemas.  No details have been forthcoming since the announcement several weeks ago, which I -- being a realist on the subject of Hollywood these days -- tend to think is perhaps a bad sign.  You know that old chestnut about no news being good news?  Not true in Hollywood; no news equals bad news way more often than not.

However, I definitely hope the project ends up coming to pass; as I've indicated in past posts, I think it's an idea rife with potential, both commercial and artistic.

It was with that thought in mind that I sat down earlier tonight to a screening of Steven Soderbergh's new film Contagion, which is about a epidemic working its way around the globe at what appears to be an unstoppable pace.

I thought it might be worth my time to sit down at the old keyboard and hammer out a review, and see how Contagion compares with The Stand.  There will be spoilers, so if you're planning on seeing the movie, you might want to do so before reading the rest of this.

First things first: in no way am I suggesting that Contagion is borrowing from The Stand.  If everyone associated with it told me they has no familiarity with it at all, I'd believe them.  I'd say the same thing about the relation Contagion has with another movie, Outbreak.  In that case, too, I'd believe the filmmakers if they said they'd never seen it or heard of it.  Claiming otherwise would be like claiming Stephen King borrowed the plot of Under the Dome from The Simpsons Movie.

But that doesn't mean comparisons can't be made, and the fact is that Contagion does tread some of the same ground as will a potential film version of The Stand; rest assured, when and if those movies get made, there will be people who assume that it is a response of some sort to Contagion.  That will be especially true if Contagion ends up being a big hit, which -- given the presence of stars like Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Lawrence Fishburne, and Jude Law -- is entirely possible.

However, I think it's unlikely.  I'll give you my rationale for thinking that: while it is an undeniably effective, and therefore terrifying, film, I found it went a bit too far in the direction of cold, calculating, and impersonal.  This is not to say that the movie doesn't have characters for audiences to invest in and focus on; it does.  However, most of these characters are entirely incapable of influencing the larger plot (i.e., the progress of the disease), and most of the characters who are capable of influencing that plot are simply not as well-drawn.

This makes for excellent science-based fiction, and part of me wants to applaud the movie for going in that direction.  The closest thing to Contagion that I can think of off the top of my head is The Andromeda Strain, which is also a somewhat cold and clinical film ... and, like Contagion, a good one.  However, The Andromeda Strain has failed to resonate with me over the years since I've seen it, and I suspect that Contagion is also going to fail to stick with me.

I don't want to sell the movie short, though.  It is quite gripping stuff, and I cannot think of many movies in recent memory that have a better cast: in addition to the above-mentioned Damon, Winslet, Fishburne, and Law, you get Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, John Hawkes, Elliott Gould, Enrico Colantoni, and Bryan Cranston.  In addition, there's a star behind the camera in director Steven Soderbergh, who has made some terrific films in his career and has never made one -- not one I've seen, at least -- that fails to be at the very least interesting.

director Steven Soderbergh
Let me give you a bit of a rundown of what I mean by the film being cold and calculating.  Here's what happens with Matt Damon over the course of the movie (heavy spoilers ahead, so be warned):

Matt Damon's wife, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, cheats on him while on a business trip.  She comes back to America already sick, and very soon thereafter collapses, and dies in the hospital.  She also infects her son (the stepson of Damon's character), who dies at home under the care of a babysitter while Damon is at the hospital.  Damon's daughter from a previous union comes to see him while he is in quarantine at the hospital, and once he learns from Kate Winslet that he is apparently immune to the disease, the two of them return home.  By this point, it is clear that the disease is widespread and getting worse before it gets better.  Matt Damon takes steps to more or less keep the two of them isolated at home, only going out when it is absolutely necessary.  He refuses to let his daughter's boyfriend visit her, and when she sneaks out of the house to visit that boyfriend later in the movie, he follows her and brings her back.  At one point, he witnesses two men firing guns inside a neighbors house and then sneaking out; presumably, they are looters, but we never find out.  Eventually, a cure is found, and eventually his daughter is vaccinated.  He holds a two-person prom for her and her boyfriend, and they dance to a U2 song.

This plotline is relatively free of melodrama, despite plenty opportunities for it.  We care about Damon's character ... but is that because of the character, or because the character is played -- and extremely well -- by Matt Damon, an actor who we know and like already?  For me, I think it's the latter.  In a different movie, there might have been more drama about his wife's affair, or a greater emphasis placed on his daughter's desire to see her boyfriend, or more suspense built around the presumed home-invaders we see next door.  I honestly don't know if that movie would have been a better movie than Contagion; maybe si, maybe no.  All I know for sure is that that is a different type of movie from what Contagion actually is.  And I think that while audiences may respond to the horror and paranoia of the movie, I think they are going to find themselves also feeling distant from it, precisely because the movie doesn't go far enough in the direction of allowing them to bond with and care about the characters.

A better job is done, to some extent, with Kate Winslet's character.  She plays a CDC field scientist who ends up contracting the disease and dying in lonely squalor.  In one of the movie's best scenes, she tries while lying in a cot waiting to die to give her blanket to another patient who is complaining about being cold; however, she is too weak to actually pass the blanket over to him, so it ends up merely falling onto the ground, while she is helpless to do anything about it.

There are other such touches throughout the movie, but they can't quite make up for the seeming fact that the filmmakers were less interested in the characters than they were in demonstrating that when a disease of this magnitude finally hits, it is going to extract a heavy toll on society.  I don't mean that entirely as a criticism, either, by the way: I think it's useful to see a topic like this from a slightly different angle than what we've seen in other movies.

Audiences do not go to movies to be lectured at, however.  They go to movies to be entertained, or -- in the case of movies with horrific subject matter like this one -- to experience a form of catharsis.

This is where I'd have to say that The Stand has potential for being more successful commercially than what Contagion is likely to be.  The Stand brings the cathartic elements in full force: we get to experience things even more horrific than what we see in Contagion.  The disease in The Stand is not, as far we can tell, combattable, whereas in Contagion it is, though it takes a while to do so; also, in The Stand the mortality rate is considerably higher than it is in Contagion.  In Contagion, we see the ties that hold society together strain to their breaking point; in The Stand, we see them shatter.  In Contagion there are vague undercurrents dealing with our inability to trust the government, although if anything I would say the movie goes in the opposite direction; in The Stand, anti-government suspicion and paranoia is allowed to bloom.

In other words, where Contagion pulls back and remains aloof in a (very successful) attempt to present realism, The Stand takes a similar scenario and goes to a place of semi-remove from reality. For some people, I know that's a problem area; taking a scenario like global epidemic and turning it into a fantasy tale about warring factions of survivors is distasteful to some high-minded critics.  I'm not saying the aye correct to feel that way; neither am I saying they are wrong.

What I am saying is that whereas Contagion will give people the willies for two hours but, for a lot of audience members, fail to take root in their psyches due to a lack of interest in giving them things in the movie to truly identify with ... The Stand has the potential to deliver most of this as well as a fantasy story that touches on the eternal verities of the struggle between good and evil.

Don't let any of this dissuade you from going to see Contagion; that's not my intent in drawing the comparison between it and The Stand.  In some ways, I prefer the approach that Contagion takes.  I sometimes enjoy seeing things at a bit of a remove.  I am a big fan of the late director Stanley Kubrick, and he typically approached subject matter from the same type of remove.

All things considered, though, I prefer the more emotional approach, and that's what The Stand can deliver.  Be on the lookout at the box office: if Contagion manages to become a big hit, then -- assuming it gets made and is done well -- The Stand will be a true blockbuster, because if a coldly unemotional film about rampaging disease does well, then a more populist-minded one will do very well.

Another few points about Contagion before I go:

  • the score by Cliff Martinez is quite good; it's mostly mood pieces (one of which sounded like it could have come from Jerry Goldsmith's score for Planet of the Apes!), but they work very well if you enjoy that sort of thing
  • Jude Law plays an extremely unlikeable blogger, and he has appallingly bad teeth, which I assume to be fakes; I also feel like the fine details of his character's plotline could have been better-explained, but on the whole Law is great playing unlikeable, which is something he doesn't get to do all that often
  • as always, Kate Winslet's American accent is impeccable
  • the final scene, in which we learn exactly how the disease began to spread, is a perfect way to end the movie
  • there is a gnarly autopsy scene involving dead Gwyneth Paltrow
  • it feels like there might be half an hour or so of scenes that got cut out at some stage of the process, and if that is true then I'd love to see a longer cut someday
And that's about all I have to say about Contagion.  Good movie; maybe a bit short of perfect, but certainly worth seeing.


Also worth seeing is Warrior, which also comes out this weekend.  I mention this only to bring up one background detail which made me grin: one of the movie's running themes involves Nick Nolte listening to an audiobook of Moby-Dick.

The version he is listening to is the one read by Frank Muller!  Muller, longtime fans of King audio releases will know, was a frequent reader of King books whose career was cut way too short by a motorcycle accident.  It's great to hear Frank's glorious voice in the background of a major movie, and I'd love it if this movie was able to spark some interest in his work.

 (As for Warrior, by the way, it's really good.  Caveat: some of what happens in the course of the plot strains credulity, so if you go see it, turn off the section of your brain that worries about that sort of stuff.  Watch it for the great performances instead.)

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