(Our Venice Film Festival review re-posted)
Word has it that Steven Soderbergh is planning on retiring pretty soon to try his hand at becoming an artist and that Contagion, which premiered this morning at the Venice Film Festival, may be one of the last four films he directs. With that fact becomes an expectation that he will want to go out with a bang with a series of knockouts but sadly his new film isn’t going to be remembered as one of his best.
The concept behind Contagion is pretty simple: a virus, a ruthless airborne illness is spreading all over the world with no prejudices or sympathy for anyone. We’ve seen it with the swine flu and with the bird flu, and Contagion is our worst fears of a global killer realised on screen. We know from history these things can happen, but once they do in real life, unless we experience them first hand, they always seem like something so distant from us… or at least something we try and convince ourselves is removed from our proximity. What Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns tries to do here is make it feel as real as possible and that the world is on the brink of something like this happening.
The film starts with Gywneth Paltrow as Beth Emhoff, a business woman who comes home to Minneapolis from a work related trip to Hong Kong and gets sick. She has got infected with a mysterious virus. From that point on it’s a continuous report of infected people and death starts spreading all over the United States and the rest of the world. What is happening, what kind of virus is this? That’s what a puzzled Laurence Fishburne, who plays Dr. Ellis Cheever, the director of the CDC (Center for Disease Control), is wondering and has his scientists trying to work out. He sends them to research what is happening in Minneapolis, specifically Dr. Erin Mears, played wonderfully by Kate Winslet, who is playing the polar opposite of her character in Roman Polanski’s film Carnage that was also shown at this year’s Festival.
For a very good half hour the story doesn’t go anywhere, just people getting infected and scientists not understanding what is going on. There are a few things that puzzle me, though. At one point in the movie they explain that this type of virus can be spread with touch, when a sick person touches an object or another person. Yet none of the characters in the film who are supposed to be the world experts on the matter take such simple precautions as wearing gloves and not touching people.
In classic Soderbergh’s style we follow a series of stories developing and entangle. Besides Matt Damon, who play’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s husband and for some unknown reason is immune to the virus, Laurence Fishburne and Jude Law, who plays a lunatic “conspiracy-is-everywhere” blogger / wanna be journalist, everybody else is not a real protagonist of the story. There’s no enemy, no evil man who planned the virus, just Nature. There’s also no real hero. Matt Damon is just trying to get by, doesn’t really do anything throughout the film, except maybe just waiting for it to end, Laurence Fishburne’s only job is to make phone calls and wait for other people to do their job and Jude Law is just trying to get rich and famous defending regular citizen from the conspiracy of pharmaceutical companies. Kate Winslet does the best she can to bring to life a believable character in a extraordinary situation, but she remains a secondary character. Same thing for Gwyneth Paltrow who’s only job is to spread the virus and die. Even the charming Marion Cotiliard doesn’t add anything to the story besides her sweetness.
As every film of this kind when the news of the virus is spread around the world panic arises and people start fighting for food. Hollywood always seem to believe that in events like this we will all go against each other in a desperate fight for survival. Maybe that is true but I also look at history and every time there is an earthquake, hurricane, natural disaster or man made tragedies, it seems to me that humanity comes together, we help one another. Sure that is not always the case but I honestly don’t believe that civil war will explode immediately. I think we are better than that. At least I hope so.
The only thing that the film can do is spark the thought of what would we do if something like that would really happen, would we continue to be civilized and help one another, would we sacrifice ourselves for the people we love, are we prepared to deal with such emergencies, both at a local level and a world wide level? Would the average man on the street be helpless when it comes to this, what instruments would we have to protect ourselves and our loved ones? Is it true that all we can do is wait for someone to rescue us?
Contagion does not contain Soderbergh’s touch, his usual rhythm is lost, the film works slowly and plainly and nothing really big happens. If it was a heart rate monitor it would be almost flat, no pulse. However it is a watchable film, that leaves room for many questions but that at least can be a good starting point of discussion.
Contagion is released in the U.S. on September 9th and in the U.K. on October 21st.