ADFF 2011 Review: Contagion
Manages to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack by being an effectively realistic and grounded thriller that hooks the audience from the very beginning and goes deeper than most other virus thrillers do.
There have been a number of virus outbreak thrillers in Hollywood, most of which have taken the horror route and become more of a zombie subgenre movie. So when ‘Contagion’ comes along, audiences need more novelty from it than just the big ensemble cast and an award-winning director. And thankfully, the movie manages to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack by being an effectively realistic and grounded thriller that hooks the audience from the very beginning and goes deeper than most other virus thrillers do.
The story follows an unknown virus that has been slowly spreading from Hong Kong all the way into United States, making people ill and killing them soon enough. As authorities and governments worldwide try to find the source of it and how to contain it, the panic spreads to different countries and the virus itself spreads through touch and airborne. We follow a bunch of different characters around the world who are dealing with the pandemic, both as the victims and as the authorities trying to figure it all out.
‘Contagion’ doesn’t spend much time setting up its characters before the outbreak happens. It doesn’t spend any time on it, in fact. The very first scene of the film is titled ‘Day 2′, meaning the virus has already began to spread and we are thrust right in the middle of the situation. I guess this unconventional approach was to be expected of director Steven Soderbergh who is no stranger to unconventionality. But it’s the right choice for the movie to jump right into the action and not let go, hooking the viewer from the first minute.
Pretty soon, major characters begin to die and the film is so tightly paced that time passes by very quickly and before you know it, thousands have began to die. Instead of pondering over a character, the movie never establishes a lead protagonist but instead shows snippets of scenes before jumping onto another continent and another set of characters. For any other film, this would have led to absolutely no emotional attachment to any of the characters but somehow, ‘Contagion’ makes it all the more effective and the star power of the characters adds more to the shocking twists and turns. And rest assured, there are some surprising scenes and developments for major characters that you wouldn’t have expected from a studio film.
Another thing that the film does very well is that it chooses to be extremely realistic and operates within the real life parameters of how a situation like this would be handled. The spreading of the infection in itself is frightening in its display and shows how just touching an object can lead to its spread. Simple things like coughing end up being a major element of the movie and creates a genuine sense of dread among the audience. How the government and authorities respond to it is also entirely plausible, which adds a level of authenticity to the film as the audience gets to experience a real life ‘what if’ scenario in front of their eyes instead of just watching a fictional piece of work. It’s documentary type elements definitely end up helping it.
My only gripe with the film may be with the way the film is resolved. Though it still fits the realistic nature of the film before it, it comes off as very anti-climactic and lacking the punch of a finale that never really arrives. Instead, some characters’ plots are left incomplete or vague while the rest get tied pretty neatly. A darker ending would have been a more natural fit to the film. The final scene however is a brilliant structural choice by the director and fittingly book-ends the film.
Acting is exceptional all around, which is what you get for hiring A-grade actors of this caliber. Matt Damon has the biggest role in the movie and carries his scenes very effectively, while Kate Winslet plays a different type of character that she’s used to and brings another element to it. Marion Cotillard is great as usual and gets ample screentime here. Jude Law is cunning and gets to play a character with more grey shades than he’s used to. Gwyneth Paltrow’s character meets her resolution pretty early on, but she appears in the film through flashbacks and other devices quite a few times. Her de-glamorized look definitely helps add a raw feel to her character. Lawrence Fishburne is adequate in his role and fits the authority figure that he’s playing.
‘Contagion’ works not only as a taut thriller but also as a cautionary tale that operates within the realm of real life that could plausibly happen any time. A stronger ending would have been preferred, but this is an all-around polished product that more than delivers on its promise.