Steven Soderbergh is a very prolific director. Interestingly, he recently announced that he has lost interest in the film medium and wants to retire. Soderbergh has directed several gems such as Erin Brockovich and Ocean’s Eleven, and was involved in the production of other good quality flicks like Syriana and the rotoscoped adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. However, some of his work is notably harder to follow like Solaris and the critically acclaimed Traffic.
But let’s move on to Contagion: Soderbergh’s most recently released work concerning a global pandemic. The movie opens in an original way by showing a number of infected people in several places in the world. This is followed by a sequence of introductory scenes for the main characters. After this the consequences for the principal cast rapidly become apparent. The first third of the movie is gripping and fast paced, but not in an action-film way as we’ve become used to from Hollywood. Instead Contagion mixes narrative and character build-up with close to documentary-style film. The second third of the movie is more conventionally paced as officials try to figure out a way to develop a remedy for the spreading disease. Unfortunately, the movie loses direction and comes to a grinding halt in the last third of the movie.
Fortunately, the scriptwriters have not tried to `dumb down’ the movie, for example: the medical researchers appear to use real, hard to follow, language. Nor have the creators tried to pump it into a blockbuster: there are no over-the-top gun blazing heroes here. Good! As people begin to realize what situation they are in they choose for themselves leading to rioting and looting, revealing the dark side of the human spirit. This also accurately shows the indirect consequences of societal turmoil: a refreshing take on easily milked subject matter.
The filmmakers chose to follow several characters throughout the pandemic that are essentially disconnected from each other. That can work quite well if their stories are logically intertwined. Unfortunately this is not the case which makes some of the subplots underdeveloped, for example the one involving a blogger and one that involves a WHO representative. On the other hand the main character at the CDC, a role by Laurence Fishburne, and of a family man portrayed by Matt Damon are well structured.
This leaves me with the problematic last third of the film, which is simply paced too slowly. This is not helped by the fact that the viewer does not really have a sense of where the movie is going once the main device that closes the story is undramatically revealed. In this sequence, surprisingly, characters are used that were either unseen or insignificant during the rest of the movie. Finally, the ending itself is somewhat predictable, but satisfactory.
Good and unnerving cinematography, a strong start and some excellent acting save this movie. However, Contagion is certainly not for everyone, and people seeking action or a blockbuster should skip it. Nevertheless, if you are interested in a more realistic spin on what might happen during a global pandemic, this might be for you.