Contagion

A while back, I went to the cinema and saw Contagion with my good friend @evetheatheist. I had heard a lot of good things about the film before I saw it. But was it an infectiously good time? Well, read on to find out, but be forewarned that there are some minor spoilers ahead.

The first thing I’d like to say is that, appropriately, I was rather sick, much to the dismay of my company. I still have a bit of the sniffles. In a very real way, that helped me get more into the mood for the film, since the film was all about how easy it is to spread a disease like my cold. The film actually starts with a black screen and a few coughs, then Gwyneth Paltrow looking as “normal” as someone as beautiful as her can look. The movie was extremely realistic in nearly all ways, and even though some of the medical professionals were played by extremely attractive people, it wasn’t to an unbelievable level (how many movies have a supermodel in her early 20s playing a high-ranking nuclear physicist or some such?). The next thing I noticed was just how star-studded this movie was. In addition to Paltrow, it had Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Chin Hau (Lau from the Dark Knight), Elliot Gould, Demetri Martin in probably his first dramatic role, the guy who plays Malcolm in the Middle‘s dad (or the Breaking Bad guy, if you watch that show), the photographer from Just Shoot Me…a lot more recognized people than in most movies I normally see. And that, in a way, is the movie’s biggest problem.

See, I don’t think that ensemble movies are always bad, not even ones like this one that don’t have an evident protagonist. In fact, the premier movie of that type, Seven Samurai, is one of my favourite movies ever, and Inglourious Basterds was one of the best movies of 2010. The difference, however, is that those movies had more real resolution than this one did. This might have been by design. As Eve said to me as we left the cinema, “life has no resolution”. And it’s true, the lack of real resolution for the various story threads, and of the movie as a whole, adds to the realism of the film. But it detracts from the quality of the movie as a movie.

Here’s what I mean, and here’s where we get into the minor spoilers. I’ll limit them as much as possible, but spoilers are inevitable to make my point.

Jude Law plays a glory-seeking conspiracy theorist blogger with an overly swelled head, whose personality I am convinced is influenced by the late (definitely not great) Andrew Breitbart. Throughout the movie he advocated for an alternative herbal treatment to the epidemic, and eventually it’s revealed that he fraudulently claimed that Forsythia (the drug) was successful in curing him, and made a few million dollars. At the end, it looks like he will get his real comeuppance, then…nothing. No explanation as to whether he really gets away with it, what the long term effects of his actions were, nothing of the sort.

Marion Cotillard’s character, Dr. Leonora Orantes, is a WHO agent who investigates the possible origin of the disease in China. She gets abducted by Sun Feng (Han) so she can be used as a ransom in order to ensure his village gets the vaccine before they run out. The next scene with her shows her teaching some village children, having developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome. Then, the exchange happens, we find out that all is not as it seems, Leonora runs away from her colleague at the airport and…what? Nothing, that’s what. I really wanted to know what happened next, but the film decided to cut that thread right there.

Kate Winslet’s character may or may not have died from the infection, though she probably did. Where was the reaction from her mentor, Dr. Cheever (Fishburne)? What was the consequence of the incredibly out of character (and stupid) move Cheever made at the end? What happened to the mouse?

The only thread that gets adequately resolved, I think, was Matt Damon’s story. I really felt for the grieving husband and father struggling to cope with not only the deaths of his wife and son, and the revelation of his wife’s infidelity, but also being there for and protecting his estranged teen daughter (though part of my love for Damon’s role might be due to the man-crush I developed for him after he defended teachers against an idiot from Reason TV).It’s also about the only place where we see the real societal effects of this major epidemic. Honestly, if they spent more time there and cut some of the padding (there was a point where Eve left for 10 minutes and she missed about nothing) and maybe abandoned Cotillard’s plot thread altogether, perhaps making a whole new movie about it, the movie would have been better. Eve said that the film dragged at a few points, and I think she’s right. It’s strange when a film both lacks adequate closure to all its plot thread and still drags at points.

All in all, I think this would have worked much better as a TV series, where the format would have been more conducive for this type of movie. Literally everything else was well done, and the science, from what I can tell, is impressively accurate, and the atmosphere was expertly built, but you have to finish your story to actually make it a good movie. I recommend it when it’s on Netflix or some other rental service, but it isn’t that strong a recommendation.

6 sniffles out of 10

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