Contagion (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Contagion</strong> (2011)

(In theaters, September 2011) There are many things to admire about Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, but the one that sticks in mind is his attempt to tell a story about something that’s basically unstoryable.  Modern-day epidemics do not lend themselves to the kind of heroics best shown on-screen: They involve many people doing their job, they turn into public policy debates, they don’t spare the righteous or punish the guilty, they peter out rather than climax and they present a diffuse threat rather than a clear antagonist.  Faced with those constraints, most movies about epidemics crank it up to zombies (28 Days Later, etc), borrow from science-fiction (The Andromeda Strain), or can’t help but throw in car chases and explosions (Outbreak).  No such narrative sleigh-of-hand here, as Contagion keeps to a fairly realistic depiction of a massively contagious and highly deadly epidemic.  Hopping all around the globe, bringing together half a dozen narrative strands, Contagion adopts a quasi-documentary look without forgetting to indulge in the occasional spectacle of a world gone wrong.  It doesn’t take that many shots of people touching things to let the film unnerve viewers, and Soderbergh’s assured direction does the rest.  Among other not-so-subtle touches, he not only kills off two characters played by Oscar-winning actresses, but has a graphic autopsy scene featuring the head of one of them.  Much of the script feels reasonably credible, with enough technobabble to set the tone.  Of course, trying to tell an unstoryable story eventually takes its toll.  Not every subplot is equally compelling (The second half of Marion Cotillard’s trip to China feels dull, whereas Jude Law’s character is annoying enough to create resentment when he escapes death) and the third act gradually diffuses itself as the epidemic runs its course.  Soderbergh’s tendency to tell a story in selective bits and pieces can occasionally be frustrating, given the potential here for a slicker film.  (Although the anti-chronological coda is a nice ironic touch.)  But given the film’s success in so many areas, in telling a familiar story in a way that sticks closer to the real world, Contagion ends up being a modest success; it’s perhaps Soderbergh’s most accomplished melding of art-house instincts in the service of broadly popular entertainment.  Amusingly for a filmmaker who’s been known to push for day-and-date direct distribution, at a time where movie theater attendance is dropping and video stores are closing, there may be no better argument for internet streaming/downloading that seeing Contagion and indulging in a bit of paranoia at the thought of human contact.

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