Monday, September 12, 2011

"No touching!" - "Contagion" review

The horror genre has a deep history of masking and allegorizing its biggest fears. For instance, mass xenophobia and worries of foreign influence get combined into "Dracula," a character driven (at least in Tod Browning's 1931 incarnation) by his foreignness and his need to suck the life out of rich white people. Or, take zombie movies: fears of the apocalypse and the fragility of humanity's existence get converted into the undead -- mankind exacting revenge on itself for its own transgressions.

In fact, Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion" has some images that might feel culled from Danny Boyle's newly seminal "28 Days Later" -- deserted airports, trash flowing into the streets, food ripped from the shelves of stores. But this isn't some kind of deranged fantasy; the terror in Mr. Soderbergh's film is all too real, and the paranoia all too enveloping. It's a globe-trotting, fast-paced affair where the end of humanity threatens not from slam-bang sequences of iconographic destruction, but in hushed conversations between medical professionals and infected patients desperately trying to literally save human existence.

This is no "Outbreak," in that it's not dampened by awkward melodrama and a tumble into action-oriented filmmaking. Soderbergh -- whose career has always cleverly slid in and out of mainstream Hollywood moviemaking, giving equal attention to experimental projects and glitzy ensemble pieces -- continues to astound at his ability to make films that are simply difficult to pin down. It's also not the action-thriller many previews advertise (a welcome relief) but a thoughtful, provocative horror film that moves very evenly -- some may say purposefully rigidly -- through a labyrinth of political and scientific lingo.

In "Contagion," a new flu has erupted across the globe. In four days, it incubates, infects, and sends its victims into seizures and death. Minnesota, Atlanta, Hong Kong, and San Francisco are just a few of the many locations the film focuses, with no fewer than five major characters, many of whom either never meet or cross paths only intermittently. With Matt Damon as an immune father, Lawrence Fishburne as a CDC official, Kate Winslet as a doctor, Marion Cotillard as an epidemiologist, and Jude Law as a fear-mongering blogger, it's an ensemble to die for (and some of them do). All their parts may feel limited in screentime, but it all feels carefully modulated to reflect a broader fabric.

That comes courtesy of Scott Z. Burns ("The Informant"), who smartly structures the film around a tight chronology (title cards inform us of each passing day) while paying just enough service to each storyline to help us get a sense of how the virus is evolving and effecting global relations, political discourse, and people's struggle to survive in a world going increasingly crazy with desperation. It could play convoluted, but Soderbergh's editor, Stephen Mirrione, provides lots of efficient cross-cutting to keep us aware of how time is evolving across the various locales.

Credit also must be given to Soderbergh in his role as cinematographer. As in "Traffic," he uses different color schemes, hues, and filters for each segment (the Minnesota scenes are, for instance, filmed in icy blue, while scenes in government offices have a flat evenness to their lighting). He uses very limited focal planes to call attention to how the disease is spreading in early parts of the film, and uses longer shots throughout to call attention to how environments are reacting and how characters are interacting with each other.

And that, in many ways, is the real terror of the film. It's been said of films like "The Exorcist" that they can only scare you if believe they could happen (if your religious beliefs incline you to believe the devil could possess a little girl). With "Contagion," there is no line -- the paranoia and fear of a flu pandemic is certainly plausible. It's happened before, it could happen again. The stakes the film describes are astronomical, but they aren't farfetched. For the icing on the terror cake, its static images of people having seizures and dying are simply horrifying.

What's scary is the simplicity of a disease spread through simple interaction. Soderbergh loves calling attention to these elements -- people sipping on glasses in a restaurant, using the same door handle, shaking hands -- such that the integration of humanity is what causes its collapse. In a sense, it's a film that's also wary of globalization, as the connectedness of people causes the immediate international spread of the disease. Again, these ideas aren't ludicrous. We are a people living very densely and traveling often, and "Contagion" plays on this knowledge.

But what's the other interesting thread in the film, and one that might be easy to go unnoticed, is how communication breaks down. Government officials have increasing difficulty keeping track of each other and keeping things under control. On top of that, Jude Law's dirty blogger character enjoys sending out paranoid, hyperbolic disinformation that spreads like wildfire through his "12 million unique visitors." Disinformation, that is to say the Internet, is its own virus.

It's a film that's very cynical about the Internet -- Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere become weapons utilized by the less educated and less informed to create a false sense of superiority. It showcases the worst impulses of humans -- those who riot, steal, and kidnap for the sake of their own well-being -- and the humility and selflessness of the best of us. It's tempting to call it ambivalent about humanity's existence, save for a coda that actually earns a bit of indulgent cheesiness.

"Contagion" is a procedural; it charts with calm clarity a disturbing, downward spiral of impending violent doom. It corrals intimate images -- leaders reduced to rocking in their chairs, husbands unable to properly grieve loss -- amidst stunners like a mass grave of bodies. The dialogue is sharp, and the images work perfectly to build its dread and let its paranoia extend out to the audience. Safe to say, it's enough to make you want to cocoon yourself in saran wrap and seal yourself in a bubble for a few weeks.

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