Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Contagion (2011) – Review

Review: Contagion is a really well made film both from an aesthetic and storytelling standpoint, as it seems to be grounded (more so than many films, especially studio films in this genre) in reality. Events evolve and play out how they probably would, given such an outbreak of a deadly disease did occur (stipulated to the same factors as in the film). It is this realism that makes the film work as well as it does. The narrative structure that director Steven Soderbergh employs sees the narrative jump around the world between multiple characters – giving a broad more global sense of what is going on. The cost of this decision is that the film does not feel like a thriller in the truest sense (at least not all the time), and this is due to there being many characters that the audience only briefly gets to know – the last of connection lessens the stakes. Mitch Emhoff might be an exception, and the scenes involving him and later his daughter have the most emotional impact and thus work the best in a thriller-like capacity. However, while Soderbergh does forgo a strong emotional connection with the audience (though, Emhoff’s character is used well as a narrative throughline, and a good touchstone for the audience’s emotions), he is aware that the story and the narrative style in which he unfolds the film is enough to engage the audience (and he is right). It also helps that the ensemble cast gives great performances (and all feel real and fleshed out to the extent their limited screen time will allow). Contagion thusly works better as a drama than a thriller; however the thrilling aspect of it is in the sheer devolution that the planet faces and encounters in the wake of the outbreak, as it grows, which is greatly helped by the realism Soderbergh uses. I would even argue that the narrative that Soderbergh retains is even more compelling than if he had stayed solely with the Emhoff character (which probably would have been a more thrilling film – a bit like 28 Days Later…, but without zombies – sort of, I mean those infected are sort of like zombies in a sense). As it is, Soderbergh can show the audience the drama of such an epidemic on a much grander and scarier scale (though, again, impersonal), and having the film so rooted in reality makes it all the more frightening, on a much more intellectual level than most disaster films (which this could be classified as). The narrative is more about will humanity survive than just one character (but, as stated above, we do get to see how one family copes with the drama of what is happening to the world, because to some degree we do need that connection to a character). True thriller or not, Contagion is a very good disaster drama, that surprisingly, given the genre, feels genuine.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Steven Soderbergh can probably be classified as an auteur director, due to his style and quality as a filmmaker. Though his background is in indie film, his best work seems to come from the films he makes in Hollywood (Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Out of Sight, and Contagion – which is probably my favorite of his films). He also produced and shot the film, and his cinematography has never been better (and at times reminded me of the work he did on Traffic – especially when the setting was Mexico). However, the production design by Howard Cummings and the fantastic score by Cliff Martinez really solidify the world of Soderbergh’s drama. With things like 28 Days Later… and The Walking Dead as reference (the film looked and sort of had the same tone as a zombie film, maybe that is why I keep coming back to them as references), Cummings is able to both stay in line with what the audience expects the world would look like in complete disarray, but also gives the film its own unique sense of realism that fits the narrative perfectly. Martinez’s score (sample here) sets the tone really well (again getting back to zombie movies, it sort of reminded me of a toned-down, more dramatic Hans Zimmer-like version of Marilyn Manson’s Resident Evil score at times, sample here versus Contagion here, with a great use of tribal drums). I liked it a lot. The cast is also very good, many with limited character work. Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard (who is fantastic with almost no screen time), Jennifer Ehle (who gives possibly a film-breakthrough performance for her career), and newcomer Anna Jacoby-Heron are great in support. Kate Winselt is wonderful and tragic in her supporting role, and Matt Damon is good as always in the lead (in a character that fits right in his dramatic wheelhouse).

Summary & score: Contagion is a disaster thriller that is more frightening than thrilling, as it play much more as a drama. Regardless, however, it is very compelling. 8/10

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