Contagion, revisited

Andrew Lambros Follow Jul 03, 2020 · 5 mins read
Contagion, revisited

photo from collider, graphic by Alexander Tuerk

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If you want to watch a bunch of insecure men have the worst day imaginable, just watch Uncut Gems. But if you’ve already seen the Safdie-Sandman sensation, Contagion should do the trick.

What starts out as a bad day for Matt Damon, quickly turns into a bad day for humanity. The story of a deadly (oh my god, so deadly) contagion as it spreads through the world, told through varying perspectives, brings us four psychologically valuable stories.

The first story follows the family of Mr. Damon. I won’t divulge any details of the through-line, but, I will say this: his wife and son die. Yeah, that’s a big detail. But it’s not a spoiler, it’s the inciting incident - and this movie came out a decade ago. The thing that’s immediately spooky, though, isn’t death. It’s Matt Damon and his daughter reacting like they eat the death of loved ones for breakfast. This isn’t natural death either, this sh*t happens fast and violently. Sure, Matt has reasons to be less worried about himself because he’s immune (spoiler, get used to it), but his daughter should be drowning in fear and grief. Instead, her emotions spawn from not seeing her beau, which is sexist. @ScottZBurns (the screenwriter).

Next is a story with Larry Fishburne as Dr. Anthony Fauci. Probably not actually, but it might as well be. His storyline is the most nuanced, but his performance is far from that. The idea of having first access to the cure is definitely on everyone’s mind. But this story focused on Fishburne’s relationship with his wife. I wish I knew her name, but she was really just there to justify his selfish actions and give him something to worry about. I’d run this movie through the Bechdel test, but I don’t really want to watch it again, so this will be the last comment of this nature. We should just assume movies before 2016 don’t really respect women. Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The story of the epidemiologist, played by Marion Cotillard, is actually insightful when it comes to how difficult viral diseases can be to track. But we don’t spend enough time with her to learn about public health. Instead, we get that info from a Jude Law that none of us have seen before, or wish to see again. Jude Law is a bananas conspiracy theorist, who blames big pharma for literally everything. Another realistic character, who rambles information about pandemics and conspiracies interchangeably until you just understand him somehow. Easily the most entertaining and unnecessary storyline. This is someone that exists, but thematically, his story doesn’t mesh. This is a film about the emotions surrounding a pandemic, not how easy it is to convince people that power corrupts.

Director (and, fun fact - Director of Photography, as Peter Andrews) Steven Soderbergh brings his unique flair to the table in more ways than one, which is good and bad. His visuals never miss a beat, as always, allowing the viewer to succumb to the world of the story. And the particularly engages a 2020 audience, making use of warm lighting for pre-contagion flashbacks - ah, those were the days! And a familiarly bleak vibe to accompany the rest.

Like the visuals, the sound design is on par with his past films like the Ocean’s franchise. But… why? This isn’t a film about witty thieves, it’s about witty teenagers, epidemiologists and an emotionless version of Matt Damon, all battling against an unstoppable force, on their respective planes. If this movie gets a Covid-19 reboot, they might go with a score less aligned with the sensibilities of Ex Machina. Especially in the flashbacks, the sci-fi chase music distracts from the warm, fuzzy visual style. But what even is the correct pandemic music? That’s what everyone’s been asking.

I was skeptical about the credibility of these characters when Gwyneth Paltrow blames her cough on jet lag - sneaky way to mention she was on a plane, but she was in an airport already. But it turns out, this film is highly credible in its perception of humanity and our psychological responses to what we have no control over. Although only scratching the surface of public health and epidemiological concepts, they do so accurately. The virus itself must be viewed as a monster - nothing like pandemics we’ve seen - so it’s not scary realistic, but it’s scary if you already hate germs. The scariest concepts in this film are the depictions of the future and of quarantine - and how freaking calm Matt Damon is the whole time.

Contagion is an example of Steven Soderbergh’s technical mastery and ability to pull an awards-seasoned cast, but not too much more than that. The explanation for the spawn or mutation of this virus is great, but it happens at the end. The beginning of the story…happens at the end. And no, not in a cool way. In my humble opinion, this could use a “laughter is the best medicine” character - and Demetri Martin’s already in it! Missed opportunity. Watch this, then Magic Mike to see Soderbergh take a smart step away from this genre, and continue to be one of the most prolific directors of our time (two Best Director noms in 2001, he lost to himself). (3/5).

DIALOGUE THAT SHINES: “Why can’t they invent a shot that keeps time from passing!” Relatable. “A virus is too small to be seen on camera.” Facts, facts, and more facts.

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Written by Andrew Lambros
Cinema Critic