Contagion – The Inaugural Film Review


A sleek, realistic ensemble drama that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s 11, Erin Brockovich), who recently announced he was retiring from directing to become a painter, has crafted a smart, stylish, and realistic gem from Scott Z. Burns‘ (The Bourne Ultimatum) vast canvas of a screenplay. Contagion will only make me miss his distinct directorial style more.

Set in the present day, Burns’ screenplay depicts several concurrent, intertwining storylines: Thomas Emhoff (Matt Damon) learns his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) has died, for unknown reasons, and their son Clark quickly follows, leaving an immune Thomas overprotective of his daughter (apologies as I didn’t recognize the excellent actress, I’ll edit this in later); a kind-hearted CDC official (Laurence Fishburne at his finest), and members of his team (Kate Winslet, a superb Jennifer Ehle), working diligently to stop the spread of the contagion while keeping public panic to a minimum; a WHO official (Marion Cotillard) kidnapped by Chinese villagers desperate for a cure; and an influential blogger (Jude Law), who claims to spread the truth. Along the way, we are treated to a visual delight of a realistic portrayal of what could happen in the event of a large breakout.

The directing is the work of a seasoned pro; Soderbergh obviously knows what he’s doing. The pacing is consistent and doesn’t lag; we become emotionally involved with the characters, who expand beyond the traditional two dimensions through smart directorial choices; the mise-en-scene is particularly smart, with little clues placed throughout as to what the cause of the contagion might have been, and interesting background events and conditions shape the feel of the picture.

Burns’ screenplay is convoluted and tricky, but manages to make everything comprehensible. It doesn’t ever fall into convention–no 28 Days Later zombies or Roland Emmerich full-scale disaster nonsense here–avoiding even the obvious “virus escapes from the lab through mistake/stupidity” trope. Burns keeps everything grounded and depicts the spread realistically. The screenplay creates interesting three-dimensional characters (Matt Damon’s, Kate Winslet’s, Laurence Fishburne’s, Jude Law’s, Elliot Gould’s, Chin Han’s, and Jennifer Ehle’s are particularly well-written). Its knowledge and strength in depicting the evolution (or devolution) of human choices in the event of an attack on our mortality is almost scary; desperate to live, people will descend into an animal state to do what they believe they need to do to survive. It’s beautifully terrifying, and Burns’ screenplay depicts this effortlessly, without going all grand scale on us like some other movies would.

The Playlist, reviewing the script alone, said this:

“[Burns] has clearly done an enormous amount of research, and it’s thoroughly, horrifyingly conceivable throughout, but it’s also as much about the way that information can spread virally in the Web 2.0 age, as it is about the spread of the virus. Burns ties these dual themes together in the final pages, the two dovetailing in a hugely satisfying way.”

ScreenRant added, also reviewing only the script:

“The one aspect I find most interesting, is that the disease is not some superpower force that kills everybody in its path. Rather, it works specifically, like most real viruses. Instead of this being some action-packed thrill ride of antidotes trying to get distributed to the masses, the story projects the fear of disease on different types of people and examines the strain (pun intended) that fear puts on relationships both small and large. While it apparently steers clear of overblown action, the film still maintains a pace that can be neck-breaking at times.”

The acting, throughout the film, is excellent. Jude Law is at his smarmiest playing a whip-smart blogger; Jennifer Ehle effortlessly underplays a smart scientist with an interesting backstory (a scene with her and her character’s father in particular knocked my socks off); Kate Winslet nails the cool, calm, and collected first response CDC leader; Laurence Fishburne shows emotional vulnerability and a sweetness beneath a gruff exterior as a CDC spokesman; and Matt Damon owns the everyman trying to protect his daughter (from the virus and boys), while avoiding his grief for his lost wife.

The editing is also superb. Stephen Mirrione, a Soderbergh vet no stranger to ensemble drama (he won an Oscar for editing Soderbergh’s 2000 feature Traffic), keeps everything intertwined and brisk, leaving no time for the audience to catch up. This one-step-ahead cutting creates tension while also maintaining comprehensibility, much like Lee Smith did when editing Inception.

Musically, former Red Hot Chili Peppers member (in the eighties) and fellow Soderbergh vet Cliff Martinez’s unique score inspires two trains of thought in my head: “Yeah, I love this, it blends electronic and classical seamlessly and with really cool sounds”, and/or “this dissonance pisses me off, stop now please”.  It’s a memorable score, and it does move the pace along well. The emotion of the film is reflected in the score, so I must say it got its job done. I’m looking forward to hearing more of Martinez’s work in the future; he’s breaking a lot of cool new ground here (much like Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross did a year ago).

The cinematography is stellar, using great framing and lensing techniques to convey both cool and warm tones as well as stability and instability, reflecting the mood of the film as it requires.

The film has loose ends, though most are tied up satisfyingly. All in all, I was compelled and entranced by the film, and it merits a second watching. Is it perfect? Certainly not. But it is entertaining, makes you think, and keeps you on the edge of your seat. Definitely worth your time.

On a side note, Demetri Martin and Bryan Cranston show up here too. Their roles are small, but they’re instantly recognizable as actors. It’s kinda cool to see them here. That’s just me, though.

PS: I’ve been hearing different things from other filmmakers here at USC who also saw the film. I’ll see if one of them will post a dissenting opinion.

About Dylan Visvikis

Dylan Visvikis is a working screenwriter and director in Los Angeles. View all posts by Dylan Visvikis

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