Dir. by Steven Soderbergh - 1 hr. 46 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
In the age of Purell, germs are the last frontier of horror. There's a proud tradition of mystery viruses in movies, whether it be action movies that have villains trying to sicken everyone (like "Mission: Impossible"), or one that take a closer look at the actual outbreak ("Outbreak," to give a terrible example), or ones that follow the aftermath of such an outbreak (like the original "The Andromeda Strain" or even "28 Days Later," in a way). These movies vary vastly in quality, but the best of them are both plausible and maintain a tension throughout the film.
"Contagion," to some degree, follows the standard plot in these situations. People die, the CDC clues in, and scientists and the government try to work out a cure or vaccine before it's too late for a ridiculous amount of people. That's fine, because that's pretty much how things really work. It's a solid premise that works. But this film has a few things working for it that takes that basic framework and turns it into a very good film.
First off, a lot of credit goes to director Steven Soderbergh. He's one of the most consistently excellent filmmakers over the last twenty years or so, whether he's doing sub-$1 million budgeted experimental work (like "Bubble" or "The Girlfriend Experience") or big-budget, star-studded extravaganzas (like the "Ocean's Eleven" series). One of his hallmarks is always having the camera in the right place, and not being particularly showy about it. It's understated excellence: he wants you to pay attention to what's on-screen, not his awesome technique. Even so, once you've seen more than a couple of his films, it's always apparent that it's his work. So it's no surprise that he gets all of the little details right. Just in the opening sequence alone, instead of needing some prologue explanation of what's going on, the entire situation is conveyed visually. It's a master-class in effortless film-making. Instead of hammering on the people who have become sick, the camera lingers for a moment on something that the sick person has touched; you know what's happening without having to be told.
Another big point in "Contagion's" favor is that it does an excellent job of humanizing what is a fairly large cast. People live sloppy, complicated lives, and that point is made. You'd expect the main actors to have enough time to get that across (especially with actors like Matt Damon and Laurence Fishburne), but even the small roles are well done. That shouldn't really be a surprise, given Soderbergh's earlier ensemble work in movies like "Traffic" or the "Ocean's Eleven" series, but it's also true here.
"Contagion" also begs comparison to one of my favorite science-fiction films, "The Andromeda Strain," and holds it's own. There's a heavier emphasis on the science aspect in "The Andromeda Strain" (which was copied to some degree in the "Resident Evil" series of films: look at the underground bunker structures to begin with); it's the germ-horror genre's version of a police procedural. One of the things that I immediately noticed a similarity in was the score for the two films, and I really liked the score to "Contagion." The tension throughout both films was excellent, and when you're talking about maintaining tension while watching scientists perform lab work, that's a nice accomplishment.
"Contagion" is on the high upper end for this sort of movie. Good acting, good direction, and a good story all add up to a really good film.
Gil Melle - "Desert Trip" - from "The Andromeda Strain" soundtrack
Cliff Martinez - "Placebo" - from "Contagion" soundtrack
4 / 5 - Theatre