Contagion Will Get Under Your Skin
There's a lot to like about Soderbergh's most recent film. For my money, it might be the best film he's made since The Limey. The cast and their performances are mostly excellent. The score is fitting and unique. It breeds paranoia without force-feeding it and is highly respectable and without much hyperbole in its depiction of a world-wide pandemic.
The latter quality is what sticks out most to me as to why I enjoyed Contagion. Going in, I was under the assumption that this would be more of an apocalyptic thriller about a virus with the potential to eradicate the human race and while this appeals to me, it's something that's been done before. Films about the pre and post apocalypse are a dime a dozens these days and in light of Contagion's restraint, it's easy to see that such dramatics are not necessary.
The Spanish Flu of 1918 (which is referenced often in the film) was intensely devastating, estimated at killing more people than the bubonic plague. The death toll figure sited in the film is 1% (which I'll just assume is accurate) of Earth's population, which isn't a world-ending event, but still incredibly frightening. This is the type of event that Contagion portrays. And it's scary because this feels a lot closer to reality than the end of the world. Without hyping up figures, people still panic (including the government), body bags still run out, as well as food, medicine and room to treat the sick.
Contagion is most effective right off the bat, depicting with frenetic urgency the measures taken to control and figure out the novel and deadly virus. I feel like, in any other film, there would be a ton of focus on finding a cure before innocent protagonists are afflicted. Things are a bit slower moving here. Cures for brand-new viruses do take some time, it would seem, and the first challenge is to simply grow it in a lab, which isn't a certainty to begin with. In the meantime, people die, which includes children and seemingly important characters. Around the time of Paltrow's skin-peeling autopsy, I imagine the audience will figure out that they're watching a film that doesn't shrink away from the grim.
The film shows us multiple sides of the story; the government/CDC response (Ehle, Fishburne, Winslet), a family touched by the virus (Damon, Paltrow), a World Health Organization representative abroad (Cotillard), and a conspiracy theorist/opportunistic blogger (Law). For the most part, these stories are well-balanced, though I feel that Cotillard's WHO character is somewhat forgotten for the latter half of the film. Each story has its interesting elements, though I'll admit that the CDC, science-y parts were more captivating that anything else. I didn't care so much about Damon's relationship with his daughter, but the glimpses at rioting and instability that are part of his arc are very interesting and startling. Law's blogger character becomes more intriguing as more is revealed about him, though I'm somewhat disappointed at how his whole story plays out.
As I mentioned above, some characters are given less screen time as the film moves along. This makes me long for a film an hour longer, with more room to cover the many relevant facets of such a horrific outbreak. However, I can't say for sure how a 3hr Contagion would actually turn out. In and around its final act, the film's pace noticeably fizzles, which makes sense considering the greater amounts of time elapsing within the story, but that shouldn't result in the sudden drop-off in tension and urgency that occurs. That's not to say that what's on screen is all bad, it's not at all, but it's almost like the "all clear" is given a bit too early, so the audience is left riding a somewhat more peaceful, yet somewhat less enjoyable, wave to the very end.
But on the overall, a pretty good film - one of the better films I've seen all year, in fact - complete with some noteworthy and skilled performances. I'm just left a little disappointed by the feeling that Contagion could have been a little better, which is to say it could have been great.