Friday, August 31, 2012

Review: Contagion

Contagion (2011): English, 106 min, directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Scott Z. Burns, starring Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishburne, Jude Law, Marion Cotilliard, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Gwyneth Paltrow, and John Hawkes. A bat poops on a pig, and then disease happens (oh, spoiler alert). Somehow, this makes a fantastically compelling film?

System 1 rating: 239, or 11101111
System 2 rating: 247, or 11110111

(That wasn't the worst technically accurate two sentence summary of Contagion that it is humanly possible to write, but cut me some slack. I'm working on it.)

In stark contrast to The Andromeda Strain, the disease in Contagion is perfectly ordinary in origin, and indeed sounds like any run-of-the-mill disease outbreak scare that you might hear about in the news. This could serve to raise skepticism of the premise among those many of us who never caught bird flu, but two things keep the film going strong: 1) the film regularly shows us people becoming seriously ill and dying from the film, and 2) halfway into the film is a press conference where an unseen reporter is given the opportunity to hang a very lovely looking lampshade on it. (Perhaps this entire paragraph was simply an excuse to link TV Tropes. You may never know.)

Also in contrast to Andromeda, Contagion doesn't deal with top-secret government agencies. The heroes of Andromeda are among the top scientists in their fields (one won a Nobel Prize), but the heroes of Contagion are CDC and WHO officials, lab technicians, and even a janitor thrown in for good measure. Andromeda used its token non-scientist character (the grumpy old man) to show the distance between the professional, focused, almost perfect scientists and the "regular Joes;" Contagion uses the regular Joes to show how regular and human the people fighting the disease are. I've been comparing the two films extensively, but really you can't. Contagion is superior in its portrayal of science, its economy of story, its ability to hold interest, the connection it builds between the viewer and the characters – essentially, in every possible respect.

I don't want to delve into plot details, because there are a lot of actors in this movie, and in a film about a deadly disease you somewhat have to expect that they won't all make it out the other side, but I will offer some vague summaries. Marion Cotilliard is the WHO official dispatched to China, where the disease originated, to determine how it spread, and without spoiling anything has a rather tumultuous time of it. Jude Law is a blogger claiming to have found a homeopathic cure for the disease. (Spoiler alert of sorts, if you know anything about homeopathy you know how his story arc ends.) Jennifer Elhe is a researcher working to cure the disease with the CDC, represented by Lawrence Fishburne and Kate Winslet. (If any of the varying storylines can be said to be the "primary" one it would be Fishburne's, which variously intersects with every other story in the film.) Arguably the best story in the entire film for its sheer simplicity and powerful emotional counterpoint, John Hawkes has nothing to do with the disease and only appears in the story as the friendly janitor who works in Fishburne's building. In the only other non-scientist storyline, Gwyneth Paltrow brings the disease to America, leaving her husband Matt Damon to try to keep his daughter safe in an increasingly anarchic quarantine zone. (I'm now having a heart attack imagining how difficult it would be to summarize the entire story.)

On the outside, this movie is about a disease, but it's far more concerned with how our social institutions react to the threat of disease. There are a lot of scenes in official-looking rooms with people making important-sounding decisions that affect the lives of millions that work together to paint a vast picture of government and media responses to disease outbreak. Overall, it's fascinating how well the movie depicts how each person's modest contribution works together, how they build on each other to [[SPOILER ALERT I GUESS]] cure the disease. You really feel like you've gained an understanding of how social institutions work on a global and, amazingly, on an individual one as well. The film never loses sight of how it affects the lives of the people involved, whether they're at the top or just an ordinary citizen. Matt Damon is ultimately totally insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but the movie keeps coming back to him as he tries to deal with things happening beyond his control. Kate Winslet's part is actually rather small and she only makes a modest contribution to the pandemic response, but the emotional impact of her characters arc is enormous, and she plays the role brilliantly.

I touched on this earlier when I said that this film offers a more believable depiction of science than Andromeda, but I want to make sure and mention that Contagion is about how diseases actually work. Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns have said that they intended to make as realistic a movie as they could about the response to a major outbreak, and the result is astoundingly believable (disclaimer: I am not an expert, I'm also not an idiot). When most movies have "movie science" this one had actual science. They taught me and likely hundreds of thousands of other viewers about the concept of R0. When you come out of a movie smarter (or at least knowing more) than you went in, that movie should be considered successful by any standard.

Systems 1 and 2 evaluation

Rewatch Value: Yes

I, for one, didn't want to leave the theater, and had to be drug kicking and screaming from my seat, paralyzed from the waist down, and thrown out the front door before the next screening. Not really, but I would certainly watch it again without hesitation. There are plenty of movies that make you feel dumber as you watch them, but this is the rare movie that actually makes you feel smarter as you watch it. And just between you and me, I don't like feeling dumb. I like feeling smart.

Personal Connection: Yes

Allow me to explain in the form of a fictional conversation between myself and an anthropomorphized version of this film:
Me: "I like science."
The film Contagion incarnate: "I have lots of science!"
Me: "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
"But Chris," I hear your imaginary voices cry out, "you can't like a film solely for being about science." To which I reply: "Watch me, hypothetical readers."

Emotional Impact: Yes

At one point not even halfway through the film, [[SPOILER ALERT FOR SERIOUS THIS TIME, SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH]] Kate Winslet catches the disease while in the field, and calls Lawrence Fishburne to try to figure out what to do. Watching Lawrence Fishburn tell her she's going to be all right when they both knew very well that she's going to die was one of the most powerful moments in any film I've seen recently. It felt vastly more powerful than the equivalent scene from, say, The Dark Knight where Commissioner Gordon has to tell his son the same lie. Not that that scene from The Dark Knight was ineffective or bad or anything, but if there was a Batman of curing diseases, most of the moments in this film would be a lot less tense. This isn't Batman. This is real life. There's no hope of a last minute rescue, there's no hero that rises to superhuman heights. There's just us, and sometimes we falter, and sometimes we hurt.

Goals of Cinema: Yes

If the goals of cinema are to entertain, then yes. If there's one thing a movie this frenetically paced can't be accused of being, it's boring. Even if you don't understand or care to understand the science [[SARCASM ALERT]] your subhuman and clearly inferior brain will still be rewarded with an intricately twisted plot, compelling and highly likable characters, and all that other stuff that makes a work of narrative fiction successful.

Goals of Art: No

I thought long and hard on this one, and I think this question is secretly the reason this review is so late. I don't want to say that Contagion is "just entertainment" or not "true art" anything pretentious like that, but if I go with my previous definition of the goals of art as being "to explore," I can't think of anything that Contagion is really exploring. It doesn't feel like it's pushing the boundaries of the medium in any particular way I can think of; it's just an incredibly compelling and well made film. And ultimately, I don't feel the goal of art is to make well made art, I feel the goal of art is to experiment with what art is.

Intent: Yes

Unquestionably, indisputedly yes (in my opinion). I was able to easily fish up numerous interviews with the filmmakers where they state their intentions (as if these intentions were at all unclear after watching the movie) to make a realistic portrayal of disease outbreak, and if you haven't gathered that I like realistic science from the Andromeda review, or from this review, or from the fact that I'm doing a solid month of science fiction reviews, then you might need to pay more attention.

a. Artistic: Yes

They've also stated that their intentions were to ground this story in the human characters as much as possible. They deliberately avoided showing anything that one of the characters doesn't see, or anywhere none of the characters go. So many disaster movies use big-picture shots showing landmarks crumbling to capture the awesome scope of the cataclysm, but it's invariably for the aesthetic spectacle of seeing "movie magic" (which doesn't really exist anymore in the age of CGI, but that's a rant for another day). They deliberately wanted to shy away from that, without losing sight on the epic proportions of the disaster. Whether they succeeded in doing so is the concern of a later question (spoiler alert, they did). All I can say is that, as far as artistic intent goes, this is one of the most interesting premises for a film that has come out in a while.

b. Technical: Yes

Contagion has a way of making me extremely aware of the myriad germs that are always present wherever we go in one of the most strikingly subtle ways. Shots of characters that seem to be merely casually following them around in their daily lives end up lingering on certain details, drawing attention to little things we otherwise would ignore as simply part of daily life. Things like sick people touching bus railings, coughing into their hands, exchanging credit cards – millions of tiny, everyday activities that can possibly transmit disease. The conscious decision to linger on these brief, ordinarily insignificant moments is one of the best decisions the filmmakers made in their attempt to bring the realities of pandemic threat to the screen.

Execution: Yes

Anyone who watches this film and thinks it unsuccessful in accomplishing what it set out clearly needs to take a shower. I first saw the film in a $2.50 theater. It's not a terribly dirty establishment, but it's certainly not the most sparklingly clean movie theater I've ever been to. This movie made me hyper aware of the man snoring and coughing in the back of the theater in a way that no other kind of film possibly could, and that no other movie ever has.

a. Artistic: Yes

I have to briefly diverge from the above thought to relate my thoughts on its artistic execution: When I answered "Yes" for emotional impact I wrote about a spoilery character moment that nearly brought tears to my eyes both times I've seen the movie. Had the acting not been right, or the characters not been written well, or any number of other artistic factors been improperly executed, that kind of emotional response would have been impossible for the film to achieve. 

b. Technical: Yes

This is obviously tied to the film's uncanny ability to get under your skin and make even a hardened hyperchondriac (word likely made up) such as myself uncomfortably aware of germs. Most of the film's more technical achievements serve to make it feel more realistic – Soderbergh has also said that one of the reasons he likes filming digitally is that it allows him to film under more natural conditions – but when it comes to their one trick, to highlighting little everyday moments of disease transfer, the film's execution is quietly effective, to the point where I might not have even realized what it was doing if I didn't have four years of film school behind me (thanks, Mom).

Themes and Morals: Yes

Despite being a pandemic disaster movie, the overarching moral message of the film seems to be "Don't panic! It will only make things worse. You're in capable hands who are doing all they can to help you." In times of crisis, it is easy to think that no one cares about you, and that you would be better off taking your well-being into your own hands. Contagion is about how our own worst enemy in an epidemic situation is ourselves and about how, while science can save us from the dangers of disease, it can't stop us from destroying ourselves, so just keep calm and carry on.


So Contagion was pretty good, but the whole point here is to say exactly how good. Under System 1 it got 239, which places it between Lebowski's 253 and Gun Crazy's 231, leaning closer to Gun Crazy. Under System 2 it got 247, which again places it between Lebowski's 255 and Gun Crazy's 178, this time much more clearly in league with Lebowski than Gun Crazy. Compared to The Andromeda Strain's scores of either 154* or 140, it was vastly superior which, if you couldn't tell from my words, reflects my opinions on the two films of disease week pretty accurately.

This is the only film other than Lebowski so far which has gotten a higher score under System 2 than System 1, which I think is a good sign for System 2. This film is clearly a lot more well made and a lot more entertaining than Gun Crazy. I like Gun Crazy as a film student who sees interesting ideas and can gloss over some extremely dated or poorly executed moments to point out a great shot, but I don't really care for it particularly as a film – I haven't found myself particularly wanting to rewatch it since I saw it. Contagion, on the other hand, is a great movie. No caveats, no excuses.

So overall, the future looks bright for System 2. I will persist with System 1 through my reviews of Kiss Me Deadly and Inception next week, which will allow me to compare ratings under System 1 with more films than just Gun Crazy, which I'm beginning to suspect may be overrated under System 1. (Also, I came up with System 2 months ago but I'm still really proud of the "personal connection" question.)

Unfortunately, while I could excuse being 6 hours late last time, this time it was 12, and more importantly I went to sleep before I finished. (I woke up at an unusually reasonable hour yesterday, give me a break.) I'm tempted to move the schedule back a day, from Mondays and Thursdays (because really, I'm not going to write a review early) to Tuesdays and Fridays, but I don't know that this will help at all. So I'm going to stick to Monday/Thursday, and just stick with it until I start writing early enough to get it on time.

Coming (hopefully) Monday, watch the movie that inspired the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction! It's a noir that I'm going to pass off as science fiction because of trippy lights at the end. I encourage you all to watch Kiss Me Deadly because to talk about this movie I will have to talk about that ending extensively. Also because it's pretty okay?

*I realized working on this review that, under System 1, artistic execution is more important than technical intent, and I had accidentally rated Andromeda Strain two points higher than I should have. I look forward to the day when I review enough movies for this kind of thing to make a difference, because that will undoubtedly be the point when I start being able to seriously test this hypothesis. I kind of dread it as well, as it will also be the point when I often have to start over and re-review a lot of movies under new systems. At any rate, I have corrected the Andromeda Strain score.

1 comment:

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