Contagion, from director Steven Soderbergh, follows the spread of an epidemic (pandemic? Something-demic) virus from Person Zero (Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Emhoff (Gwenyth Paltrow)) through to the discovery and distribution of a vaccine, unsurprisingly focusing on America (thank God we have America to save the world! Seriously.). Its structure is episodic, with an ensemble cast of international stars who to a fault downplay emotion in service of plot and style. The narrative twists and weaves between characters and stories, establishing connections within the complicated network of people and events.
This structure didn’t work for me for two reasons. Firstly, Hollywood films work by displacing external, unresolvable conflicts onto a finite group of people and then figuratively resolving conflicts through the successful conclusion of the narrative. War movies focus not on the actions of countries but on a certain group of (usually) men at a particular moment. Thus the experience of Australia in the First World War is displaced onto two men from different social classes and backgrounds in Gallipoli. This is what Robert B Ray calls ‘a certain tendency of Hollywood cinema’ (although technically Gallipoli is a product of the Australian cinema rather than Hollywood cinema, I don’t watch war movies because they make me sad but I was forced to watch this one in primary school so it’s one of the only war movies I know. It made me cry in front of my class - my teacher was clearly a sadist.). When this group blow up the bridge or save Private Ryan or whatever, we cheer for them and the sad, tragic and awful group moments of war become private moments of success. This tendency reached its zenith when Stephen Spielburg managed to create a happy ending to the Holocaust in Schindler’s List. Contagion eschews this tradition, moving quickly between storylines and character. However, when there are a number of narratives, none of which fulfil the traditional arc the viewer has no-one to identify with, resulting in a disengaged viewer who spends a lot of the movie wondering why there were so many characters with ‘L’ sounding names – Ally, Ellis, Elizabeth, Lyle, Leopard, Lorraine. (Why? Because ‘l’ is predominant in the world ‘ill’? I don’t understand.)
Secondly, I found it problematic that, while preventing us from identifying or even caring about any of the characters, the narrative is continuously reinforcing the importance of the self against The Man. The characters in Contagion are constantly being opposed, by hospital unions who stop nurses from working with sick patients (“How can they do that?”, exclaims Aubrey Cheever (Sanaa Lathan)) or by the government, who suspected that terrorists had engaged in biological warfare and prevented non-government staff from working on the virus. Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) erects boundaries around his daughter, while himself being prevented from leaving his house or obtaining food. Insubordination and rebellion are promoted as the way to fix this problem – the virus is replicated by a scientist Dr Ian Sussmen, a scientist who ignored the government’s orders to cease working with the virus (played by Elliot Gould – another ‘L’ name!) and the vaccine’s creator, Dr Ally Hextall (Jennifer EhLe, who played Elizabeth Bennett in the one and only acceptable adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) ran a human trial on herself in violation of scientific protocol. Repeatedly, the importance of the personal over the national is emphasised – Dr Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne) saves his fiancé in an act that has dramatic consequences for the health of millions of Americans but he states it was “the right thing to do and I’d do it again”. The problem with this viewpoint is that it violates a basic premise of civil society in that groups who are chosen to protect the many do so, even at the possible expense of a few. It is the job of unions to protect their members, especially from highly dangerous diseases. Scientific protocols exist so that an independent scientist doesn’t have access to diseases that can wipe out a quarter of the world’s population and that the key scientist working on vaccine doesn’t inject herself with an ineffective vaccine and die. The possible death of one woman is less important than the possible deaths of millions of Americans. Also, FYI, Australians don't say "Crikey!" Really, if you need to resort to inaccurate slang to identify a character's nationality, as the youngsters say today, ur doing it rong.
Soderbergh’s distinctive style marks every frame of this film and is in many ways its fatal flaw, with moments with the potential to provoke an emotional response instead being ridiculous and overdone. For example, in the second half of the film, we are shown sites that previously had been busy and teeming with life now empty and literally lifeless. The stark contrast between life and death that is demonstrated here should have been moving and sad, like the moment in 28 Days Later when Cillian Murphy leaves his hospital bed and wanders through a disturbingly empty hospital into a deserted London. Instead, the twangy synthesised soundtrack, more reminiscent of an ‘80s porno than a possibly dystopian future, provoked laughter in my living room and an excuse to pause the movie and check the footy scores.
For all its many millions of deaths, Contagion is remarkably bloodless. The movie has been praised by the scientific community for its accuracy concerning the scientific and medical practices and procedures depicted (although as an Arts graduate they could have been testing products on rainbows using unicorn farts and I wouldn’t have noticed). There is a curiously sterile quality to this film, as if the emphasis on scientific accuracy was reflected in the style at the expense of any identification with a particular character that would encourage the viewer to actually care what happens to anyone. I certainly didn’t. At the conclusion of the film I felt like I’d been part of an expensive thought experiment. It wasn’t until the last five minutes of the film that a character broke down and cried and by that time it was too late to have any impact on my emotional investment in the film. I give this film 2 stars - if I don't care about any of the characters or any of the stories, then I just don't care.