By Don R. Lewis | September 11, 2011

I haven’t had the flu in well over 10 years and aside from the occasional sniffle or slight cough, I haven’t had a cold in over 5. This is particularly impressive when you discover that I’ve worked with kids in various recreation and after-school programs over the past 15 years and we all know kids are germ factories. Plus, all these film festivals I attend are colds and flus waiting to happen. And they do happen, to everyone but me. Did I mention I’m also an annoyingly compulsive finger nail biter? Yeah, gross. So what’s the secret to my freakishly successful immune system that’s fought off sickly kids and incessant fingers in my mouth? Oh, just some slight OCD and generally weird behavior when it comes to keeping my hands clean.

For instance I rarely open a bathroom door without using the sleeve of my hoodie or a paper towel. I don’t dare touch those black escalator handrails and rarely grab handrails on stairs unless I’m drunk and/or falling. I prefer to not shake hands, opting for a hug for old friends and a fist bump for acquaintances and maybe the occasional hi-five here and there. And, most importantly, I wash my hands several times a day. I don’t use hand sanitizer either, just good old soap and water. While all of this might seem freakish or weird, I don’t obsess on it. I just kind of subconsciously do it and have done so for so long, it’s second nature. Because of it, I don’t get sick.

Undoubtedly you now know more about me than you ever needed or wanted to know and are also wondering “okay, broke version of Howard Hughes, aside from the obvious, what does this have to do with Steven Soderbergh’s latest film ‘Contagion?’” Well, I mention all my germ free proclivities because as a person who actively seeks to not be sick, I was surprisingly nonplussed by the film which examines what might happen if a very deadly flu-type pandemic swept the globe. I should have been glued to my seat in terror, or better, standing on it shouting “I told you all! I told you to wash your hands and not touch one another!” Instead my reaction was more of a “well, that happened” one and that surprised me. While the film is without a doubt effective in it’s realistic creep-out factor, I found it really kind of non-eventful and dull. The biggest thrills in the film took place in the theater whenever someone would cough or sneeze, causing everyone to stiffen in their seats or pull a shirt up over their mouth and nose as if the film were coming to life.

“Contagion” details the events that occur when Beth (Paltrow), a business woman doing business in Asia, contracts a brand new virus that overcomes people within a day or so. It’s extremely fatal and fairly yucky to boot. If you’ve read Stephen King’s “The Stand,” you’ll automatically tag the illness with that books terrifyingly suffocating “Captain Trips” nickname as the similarities are obvious. Beth brings the virus stateside, infecting untold amounts of people along the way before arriving home to infect her young son as well as her husband Mitch (Damon). Well, sort of. Mitch appears to be immune and it’s mainly through his eyes we see society come to grips (or, not) with an increasingly scary threat to human existence. Soon we meet Dr. Mears (Winslet), who is a greenhorn CDC (Center for Disease Control) employee assigned to find out what the hell is going on. Her boss, Dr. Cheever (Fishburne), is a good guy with a true moral compass, willing to do the right thing and little does he know he’s sent Mears into a war zone.

Far less morally straight is blogger Alan Krumwiede (Law), who sees a chance to make a name for himself as well as a tidy profit by playing the ole “the government is lying to you” paranoia card on his heavily trafficked website. As you may already know, schtick like Krumwiede’s works effectively in real life each day on poorly educated conspiracy theorists who kiss the feet of “Info Wars” scholar Alex Jones and clog up your Facebook feed with their daily dose of nutter rants. AHHH…chem trails and Free Masons! Elsewhere the World Health Organization jumps into the fray, sending Dr. Orantes (Cotillard) to Asia to try and find out the root cause of the virus and, before long, we’re embroiled in a star-studded medical procedural that grows increasingly more bland as it goes on.

In fact, those are my two main issues with “Contagion.” Firstly, the film is so laden with Oscar nominated actors and actresses, it becomes distracting. Even the CDC janitor, who is in a grand total of 3 scenes, is played by Oscar nominee John Hawkes. The thing is, none of these actors are required to do any Oscar caliber acting, which begs the question: why are they all in this film? Obviously Soderbergh wanted to work with them and vice-versa, and clearly that’s the right of an artist, to choose who they want to work with. And lets admit it, you want to work with the best. But with such a large, well-known cast and a general lack of character development save a dash here and there, it was hard to find any real sense of empathy for these characters who are simply that; characters. These are not fully fleshed out human beings and the calm, cool and collected attitude that guides the characters as well as the action doesn’t help the audience really care about anyone or anything.

This leads to my other issue with the film. Namely, just how cold and sterile “Contagion” is as an experience. Look, I get that the film is kind of detailing the cracks and crevasses of stuff we don’t see in most plague movies. While all other plague (see also: infection, zombie and alien attack) movies detail with the kiss kiss, bang bang action we’ve come to love and expect, “Contagion” opts to show smaller, more personal stories as well as the mathematics and science that goes into finding out how to stop a potentially world ending threat. While it’s impressive and neat to see how that might happen, the fact that everyone is so remarkably calm and emotionless through most of the film makes the whole affair seem lifeless. The action never really rises above a simmer and as a result, there’s little build up and thus, no catharsis.

I definitely didn’t hate “Contagion” and as a fan of Soderbergh’s, I’m sure he’s getting at something deeper than what is happening onscreen at first glance. After only one viewing it’s impossible to really get at what this master of technique and aesthetic might really be getting at in the film. But in the end the “Contagion” is weighed down by it’s own high caliber of talent and as a result is an interesting take or experiment within a genre rather than an altogether successful film.

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  1. Dan O. says:

    Contagion becomes a battle between what it is and what it could have been. It satisfies just enough to warrant its existence while frustrating one with its potential. Nice review.

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