No, Gwyneth Palthrow hasn’t let herself go: she’s very sick at the beginning of Contagion, the latest Steven Soderbergh. Palthrow’s character has fallen victim of a hitherto undiscovered disease and – you really wouldn’t have guessed this from a movie with such a title – quickly passes it onto other people. And that’s how one person’s cough quickly spreads to a pandemic.
Palthrow is just one of the familiar faces in Contagion. To name but a few: Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishburne, Elliot Gould, Marion Cotillard and Kate Winslet. Enrico Colantoni isn’t as much of an A-list star as those others, but he’s also in the film and we’re always glad to see him, so let’s mention him as well.
It seems Soderbergh has earned himself such a good reputation all the stars and Jude Law have lined up for this essentially not very mainstream film. It’s not as if the film is an arthouse piece of contemplation, but it’s pretty bleak. The more the disease spreads, the less humane our society seems to become. The film focuses a couple of people, which is understandable but as a result some cinemagoers complained they couldn’t really feel close to the characters. Most characters in the film are either affected by the disease or trying to conquer it, with the notable exception of self-obsessed blogger Alan Krumwiede who thinks he’s the best journalist the world has ever seen and tries to persuade everyone the world will be safe if his homeopathic medicine is taken. It remains unclear whether he willingly tried to enrich himself with a hoax medicine or whether a severe case of hypochondria makes him believe his own lies, but in any case this character is so revoltingly awful he could only be portrayed by übertwat Jude Law.
Contagion focuses on the characters most affected by the disease and therefore, once a cure is found, the movie swiftly wraps up (but not after showing how Palthrow became Patient X). Again, this is something that certain reviewers and bloggers complained about, but I’m happy to defend this decision. Remember how much fear-mongering was part of the whole bird flu or swine flu outbreak? And what happened the moment we discovered we weren’t all gonna die? Do you even remember those pandemics? Or, while we’re at it, the Mexican flu?
And while we’re on the subject of remembering stuff: do you recall the excellent series ReGenesis? (At least the first two series were great – the third and fourth season still haven’t been broadcast here.) The Canadian tv show focused on a brilliant scientist and his crack team who had to find a cure for a pandemic. ReGenesis didn’t have the budget Contagion had, but for some reason it was more convincing in showing how pandemics spread. Of course, it helped that ReGenesis had 26 hours to develop its characters (even if most of them were asocial, stubborn egocentrics). The worst developped character in the film is Marion Cotillard’s character, who flies to Asia and manages to get herself abducted: is she worth hundred vaccines? It doesn’t really matter because soon after her abduction her storyline seems to be forgotten, only to re-appear in the wrap-up. One might argue additional scenes would have hindered the speed of the movie, but you could equally argue the storyline might have been completely cut in order to gain even more speed.
Arguably the oddest casting is for comedian Demitri Martin. He’s not the first comedian to appear in a non-comedy, but seeing him felt odd: a bit like seeing a clown at a funeral. Otherwise the film is well cast – even up to getting hate figure Law for the most unlikable part. That was worth repeating. (I’m sure Jude won’t read this, but if he does, I’m convinced he’ll be spitting on the ground this very instant.)
Anyway, Contagion is a decent movie. From time to time it shows its balls (like with the unannounced autopsy of Gwyneth Palthrow) and in pseudo-documentary style it does tell something about the condition humaine (fear-mongering, decisions to inform your beloved ones for upcoming danger, …). Yet sometimes it seems like the film doesn’t dare to go that extra mile: why not dig deeper? Because it would leave the centre too much? Possibly, but now we’re left with a decent film that shows us the human reactions to a pandemic. Much like ReGenesis did, but that was brainier, deeper and more involved. ReGenesis Light if you please, but then again, light products still seem to be the rage.
7/10 (that’s a 6.5 with a flu)