So I went to see Contagion almost against my better judgement. I hate pretty much all disaster movies, be they natural or extraterrestrial or even biological. I hate the stupid obvious interweaving story lines. I hate the manipulative melodrama. I hate the voyeuristic thrill of watching so much bad happen most of these movies delight in.
Surprisingly I didn’t get any of that. Soderbergh is a smarter and more restrained director than that, and from the moment his film hits the ground it is all business all the time. We already know the premise–a disease arises that threatens a great portion of humanity, and people naturally try to combat it. There’s no fat here, no slow introduction. The presumably spoilery bits with Gwenyth Paltrow’s character from the trailer are the opening ten minutes.
That economy of filmmaking allows the movie to be brutal to its characters without it feeling unearned. The spread of the disease is incredibly fast and when even named characters drop like flies, it feels appropriate. People don’t get to survive just because they’re on the poster. Epidemics are, in some ways, a great equalizer.
There’s a great scope here without it feeling heavy or ponderous. We have a bunch of smart people trying very hard to achieve science against a ticking clock, and while that’s certainly not for everyone it has at times the feel of an espionage thriller to it, just extrapolated out to an abstracted level. Different organizations, different agendas, all trying in one way or another to reach a similar goal.
Which is what makes the film really work, I think. It’s about humanity at its core, about our need to be social creatures, our will to survive and the lengths we’ll go to get there, some good and some ethically darker. It’s just done in an understated, modest way that flies against most of the tropes of the genre. I’ve heard the movie described as cold and unapproachable, but I found myself much more affected by small moments (the hotel room scene and the handshake, if you must know) than any more overtly melodramatic scene in similar movies.
And at the end of the day, for all its apocalyptic marketing and dark subject matter, Contagion is a story about humanity, and about hope and connectedness, the inevitability of threats to our survival and the small ways we confront it, accept it, and beat it. There’s a frankness to it that feels honest, a way of storytelling that knows that showing a little often tells you more than showing a lot.
Contagion is the kind of big scale epic movie that belongs in a smarter world than the one we inhabit. The characters are all incredibly competent, and it’s nice to see female characters who are actually intelligent and not just fulfilling an adolescent librarian-fetish role. It’s nice to see government portrayed as more than the looming shadowy bad guy, though sometimes it is that, too. Contagion isn’t afraid of ambiguity at a time when all is spelled out ad nauseum. Admittedly, the movie is not particularly fun and it makes very few compromises for people who aren’t willing to follow along with a little science and politics. But for a movie about a worldwide plague, it’s subtle, and that’s damn surprising.