Clinical ‘Contagion’ Lacks Character

Contagion -- Dir. Steven Soderbergh (Warner Bros.) -- 2.5 Stars

Courtesy Warner Bros.

An apocalyptic pandemic ravages the globe in director Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion.”

A deadly and seemingly unstoppable virus terrorizes the globe in Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh’s star-studded new film, “Contagion.” The project boasts an impressive billing, sporting no less than four Oscar-winning actors—Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, and Gwyneth Paltrow. With such a reputable team and an impressively chilling trailer, the film set the bar quite high for itself—and so it was perhaps inevitable that the movie falls short of its expectations.

“Contagion” succeeds as a film about a virus, but not so much as one about people. Soderbergh abandons all pretense of subtlety in his mission to bestow upon audience members a deep-seated fear of all things touchable. The camera lingers at hand-level rather than eye-level for most of the shots, as we watch hands shake, drinks pass, credit cards swipe, and other mundane tasks unfold, now imbued with an underlying sense of doom. A mute, sickly color palette tinted with greens and blues enforces a constant aura of disease and decay as we watch character after character succumb to the mysterious killer, beginning with Gwyneth Paltrow in the film’s opening minutes. And nothing about the dead bodies is left to the imagination—gruesome makeup and special effects allow us to see every vivid detail, from seizure to autopsy.

All the while, an international team of researchers races against the clock as the number of victims mounts exponentially with each passing day. Hong Kong, Macao, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, Abu Dhabi, London, and Geneva make cameos as feverish global lab work ensues and experts debate how to control and guide the public during the outbreak.

But even with such high stakes and stylized images, “Contagion” doesn’t manage to nail elements of either drama or thriller. Characters are painfully flat and all too similar to each other. Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, and Marion Cotillard play almost indistinguishable breeds of doctor, all with the same goal and too few engaging interactions. The addition of a human element is attempted with Matt Damon’s narrative, as he tries to protect his last remaining family member, a teenage daughter played by newcomer Anna Jacoby-Heron. But the attempt is halfhearted, and the storyline’s shoddy writing and poor editing result in moments that lapse into the realm of near-laughable melodrama.

The movie’s trailer promises a thriller that will keep us on the edge of our seats. But audiences know from the movie’s gruesome and punchy inception how urgent the search for a cure is, so there is no room for escalating tensions over the subsequent 90 minutes of repetitive research. And since no character sticks around long enough for audiences to get attached to them, all of the film’s losses feel the same; though numbers of deaths escalate, our investment in the story does not. By the time Damon and his daughter find themselves literally running for their lives, we’re ready for the cure to be found, if only for some variation in the plot.

Moreover, the film seems to have something other than storytelling at its core. Sideways comments on the functioning and priorities of the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, and other such institutions, as well as references to the past wrongs of Wall Street and the chaos of Katrina, make the script more closely resemble a piece of propaganda rather than a work of cinematic storytelling.

Despite its substantial flaws, though, “Contagion” is still enjoyable. Its chilling progression makes for a coldly fatalistic statement about man’s helplessly infinitesimal place in the universe. Cliff Martinez’s effective score injects exciting energy to counter the sometimes-dragging plotline. And of course, heavy hitters like Winslet and Cotillard command the screen with their usual gravitas.

Still, with ingredients like a stellar cast, a talented writer, exotic locations, an Oscar-winning director, and a proven premise, this movie should have been capable of more than just holding its own. Yet it is difficult to lose ourselves in this story, absent compelling characters to engage our sympathies. From writing to directing, editing to acting—if all the players in “Contagion” had done their jobs with a little more of the potency of their past work, the film could have been truly spectacular.

—Staff writer Abigail F. Schoenberg can be reached at aschoenb@fas.harvard.edu.

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