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Contagion - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: B-
Acting: B-
Writing: C
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

The scene is in a movie theatre. There's a guy coughing. The cameras follows the particles shooting out of his mouth, which he is idiotically not covering with his hand, until they float through the air and into the mouth of another patron. The contagion spreads!

--Oh wait, sorry, that was the 1995 movie Outbreak, which, frankly, you'd do just as well watching again as to watch Contagion, or any of a multitude of other movies about pandemic.

The key difference between these two specific movies is that Outbreak details the quarantine of a small California town, whereas Contagion skillfully tracks the spread of an outbreak around the globe. It seems meant to give you the heebie-jeebies about potential real-life scenarios of this sort, and, occasionally, it does. But most of the time it just comes across as a straightforward procedural: people trying to figure out where the virus came from, how it works, how it can be cured, if it can be cured (or, more realistically, vaccinated against), and how to limit its spread.

It's so focused on the skillful mapping of a globally spreading virus, in fact, that character development suffers extensively. This movie is getting surprisingly solid reviews, and was the box office champ its opening weekend, but I have a theory that the only real reason for this was for the lack of anything else opening that was better. Objectively, there are documentaries more exciting than this.

It's too bad, because it’s A-list director (Stephen Soderbergh) has amassed a stellar, A-list cast: Gwyneth Paltrow as the person from whom the virus spreads; Matt Damon as her inexplicably immune husband (and what are the odds of that?); Jude Law as a panic-inciting blogger (favorite line from a detractor of blogging: "Blogging is just graffiti with punctuation"); Marion Cotillard as a doctor from the World Health Organization; Laurnece Fishburne (when did he get so fat?) and Kate Winslet as CDC government employees. I could go on, but why bother? Even many of these characters exist only to get infected and die. In some cases it seems only implied: they start off as major characters, get sick, and then we just never return to them again.

There are some major problems with Contagion that many seem to be ignoring. For instance, its marketing campaign, which presents it as being more about the dangers of public panic than of the disease itself. But Soderbergh keeps a cool distance from the panic scenes, never giving us a feeling of immersion into them. The production design of city blocks clogged with untended garbage look like precisely that: production design. There's a curious emotional detachment to all the proceedings here. As a result, the movie is really not quite as frightening as it seems to want to be.

Most of the actors fully commit to their roles, but they are overridden by this tone of detachment. It’s as though the virus itself is the star of the show. But the virus, of course, has no charisma, no screen presence. So why bother? The feel is largely like watching a documentary, except about something that hasn't actually happened. But it could happen. If nothing else, it was effective at making me well aware of how often I was touching my face while I was watching the movie.

That said, occasionally even the acting stumbles. There are a couple of scenes where the delivery comes across as though there had been one rehearsal and the director just decided to use that.

If anything is consistent in Contagion, it's the tone, and the editing. It's probably the editing more than anything that holds the attention, because little else really seems to be of consequence -- aside from, of course, the passing of the infection from one person to the next. We get a lot of close-ups of hands touching things: glasses, bus poles, faces. I can't say any of it is boring. But Contagion is billed as a thriller, and I can't say any of it is particularly thrilling either.

Matt Damon searches in vain for a point to CONTAGION.

Overall: B-
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