Steven Soderbergh employs slow-boil hysteria and star powered crowds to get at the dirt that kills us in his 2011 pandemic killer bug movie, but somewhere between scientifically accurate and cinematically magnificent he loses track of entertaining. In a movie about a virus that you can’t see and an all-star list of dead and dying celebrity victims that you can’t avoid, lackluster scenarios and scattered subplots make it nearly impossible to find the reward at the end of so much prescribed tragedy. It’s as though in his pursuit of verisimilitude, to get the containment suits to fit right and all the light microscopes figured out, Soderbergh falls victim to his own sense of responsibility to an ordinary world that’s too much like our own to be saved. He wants us to believe so much in what he has created and how much he gets right that he forgets to make it bigger. Nothing undermines audience participation like a serious film that takes itself too seriously.
At its best Contagion is a throwback to the monster movies of the 1950s where the blob has been updated to fit our times and replaced with its antithesis – the infinitesimal. Movies like The Blob (1958) were often loaded with symbolism or had meaning piled upon them, reflecting a prolific era for filmmaking about a changing world in general and Sci-Fi Fantasy films commenting on our love of the bomb in particular. If the blob symbolized the increasing threat of Communism during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, Contagion’s microscopic killer virus might suggest a world so exhausted with violence and scattered indifference that it has become vulnerable to attack by anything and everything. On the other hand, Contagion might just be another epic disaster movie where science has gone awry and germ warfare is the new Earthquake (1974) or Avalanche (1978). In a decade that has seen tidal waves and Tsunamis in films and real life, when television brings us the threat of invaders from within and elsewhere weekly, Contagion feels shortsighted and run-of-the-mill. Assembling familiar faces to lend credence to people just like us only proves how unlike everyone in this film is to people we know or care about. Billed as a Mystery & Suspense film with elements of Action & Adventure, the only thing uncertain about a film about uncertainty is whether or not we’ll see it through to the end.
Steven Soderbergh has tried his hand at everything from big budget Hollywood films like Ocean’s Eleven (2011) to Erin Brockovich (2000) and considerably smaller, more independent projects like Bubble (2005) and The Girlfriend Experience (2009) Experience. His latest film Magic Mike is playing in theaters now and appears to be doing well. He usually serves double duty and more on a production, equally adept as producer, screenwriter, cinematographer and editor with his work as director earning him an Academy Award for Traffic (2000). His films are bold, watercolor washes of everyday ordinary places inside manufactured dreams, saturated images and calculated characters that are both familiar and abstract. He makes places for things to happen and things give his characters actions, impressions and suggestion. Where his character films are precise, wounded souls wanting to adapt before it’s too late, his event films own well-defined boundaries for grand explorations of contained space where air suggests something is about to happen but makes no guarantees. Solaris is perhaps the perfect ode to happenstance, simple existence while Sex, Lies, and Videotape makes no mention of definable goals but nevertheless arrives at something like it.
Contagion is hardly the stuff of escapist joy or simple entertainment. Obsessed with clinical detail and distracted by stoic responsibility, Soderbergh robs the film of immediacy and makes intimacy a matter of geography instead of the result of meaningful relationships. The closest we get to caring about these characters is seeing the reaction of the dying to their infinitesimal, unidentifiable killers. We are lead to believe that Contagion is an Action-Thriller but that’s inaccurate if not misleading. It is a monster movie if it is anything else, and because it is a monster movie it must have a clear, definable monster or else what it becomes is a disaster movie. If it is a disaster movie it must have a sense of salvation, however thin-veiled in suggestion and innuendo, a place we want to rebuild after all is said and done. The trouble with chasing air borne threats is that it leaves audiences winded and spent in the end, separated by the effort. Ultimately when all is said and done and the end is near, mostly we feel thankful for the dim glow of the credit scroll, a cleansing light anointing us of the sin of admission.
Blu-ray or not to Blu-ray:
Contagion is an epic film in terms of its subject matter, not its landscape accomplishments. It’s hard to imagine the necessity of IMAX or Blu-ray for a film about microscopic invaders that have little to no screen time. Much of what is wrong with Contagion stems from what Soderbergh wanted to achieve as an “epic” yet “intimate” setting. While he filmed in real-world locations in Hong Kong, Chicago, Atlanta, London, Geneva and San Francisco they are little more than place holders for what we think of when we imagine the world from the safety of our personal corners of it. For every viewer who will choose the largest scale possible for their movie experience, both in theaters and at home, there will be another who is just as satisfied watching movies on their phones at whatever resolution and quality is available to them. Contagion may look and sound better in Blu-ray but ultimately that will be up to you to appreciate.
Warner Home Video, a division of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Inc., invited me to join their exclusive Blu-ray Elite Movie Review Program and they sent me a complimentary copy of this movie for the purpose of review with special attention on the “Blu-ray Experience”. I received this video for free, but that does not sway this review or the reviews of other films that will follow.