Review: ‘Contagion’

“It’s rare for a scary story to so thoroughly engage the screen, and to impress such unnerving fear upon the audience…”

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

The best Irwin Allen movie, not surprisingly, was not directed by Irwin Allen. It was directed by Steven Soderbergh, and it’s coming out this weekend, decades after the heyday of the great disaster movie maestro. Contagion is a star-studded, globetrotting tale of terror that – in the mark of all great horror movies – will make you think twice about taking risks in your daily life. But whereas Jaws made you afraid to go to the beach, Contagion will keep you from even touching your face. It’s a freaky film about a global epidemic that feels accurate, which makes it very troubling indeed. In a good way.

A brief recap for folks who don’t know who the hell Irwin Allen is (damn you young whippersnappers, etc…): Allen produced and sometimes directed a series of disaster movies throughout the 1970’s in which a star-studded ensemble cast endured over-the-top obstacles. The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno are perhaps the most famous examples. Obviously the stunt casting was meant to bring in audiences by the truckloads, but it had an added effect that may or may not have been intentional: it allowed the filmmakers to tell a story about an impossibly large group of characters, many of whom may never even meet on-screen, and not only introduce them quickly (“Oh hey, it’s Gene Hackman!”) but also keep them all straight in the audience’s head (“What’s going on? Oh right, it’s Gene Hackman!”). Contagion succeeds in this storytelling trick better than any film previously, perhaps because director Steven Soderbergh has assembled a more talented cast than Allen (and his seeming successor Roland Emmerich) ever could, but also because the film is about an insidious threat rather than an overt catastrophe, which prevents the film from falling into traditional disaster movie traps like saving the family dog from a burning so-and-so.

Contagion, more than anything else, is the story of a virus. It is transmitted across the globe thanks to a few unknowing carriers, through such chillingly banal means as breathing and touching stray objects. The film follows such characters as Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet and Jude Law as they struggle to survive, defeat, educate about and profit from the disease. Each member of the rich supporting cast (supporting the virus, that is) delivers a fine performance with enough realism to take the film seriously. Actually, they make take it just a little too seriously. It’s rare, but moments of borderline absurdity fly by without so much as a smile from the filmmakers, who let lines like “Somewhere, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat” and bizarre images of Jude Law in a poofy homemade hazmat suit slip without a second glance. The world itself is in a dour situation, but not a single member of the cast – with the possible exception of Elliott Gould – uses humor as a defense mechanism.

It’s a small gripe. In fact, I’m certain that the oppressive seriousness of the film is intentional. It’s a plausible story, damn it, and presumably they didn’t want to undermine it with comic relief. As a result Contagion plays like a horror tale more than anything else, with genuinely upsetting images of death, autopsies and rioting burning themselves into your brain repeatedly. The paranoiac message is clear, and the odds are that you will either be deeply affected by the troubling, seemingly realistic story of a deadly epidemic or at least held in suspense throughout the feature presentation, with such fears fading with time. But it’s rare for a scary story to so thoroughly engage the screen, and to impress such unnerving fear upon the audience, particularly with such a large and potentially distracting pool of acting talent. It’s a creepy, unsettling thriller, and it does it all without a single singing ghost child or brutal mauling. You should catch Contagion if you can.