Thursday, 3 November 2011

Contagion; catchy title

About a third of the way through Contagion, Elliott Gould dismisses blogging as "graffiti with punctuation", which left me wondering if I should say anything at all about the movie.

It's a weird movie, even for Stephen Soderbergh. Hollywood goes through binges of end of the world movies, and right thinking people always rip into them for showing us the end of the world through the eyes of a couple of far-from-typical scrappy protagonists who survive the whole thing. Contagion is the antidote to that. The world doesn't actually end, but a celebrity cast gets randomly picked off - or spared - by the titular disease until the movie finally comes to an end without having really made any point I could see. Other than that people are kind of dickish under pressure, but most of us don't need to go to the movies to figure that out.

While Soderbergh is determined to mess with the standard formulae of disaster movies, he sticks to the Hollywood baseline in two very noticeable ways. Firstly, he makes sure that as long as he's got Jude Law on contract, his character will be a complete douchebag. Secondly, he uses his movie to highlight the appalling discrimination which still applies against ordinary looking women when it comes to getting jobs in places like the Centres for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation. Neither body seems to have any trouble at all hiring pudgy looking male schlubs, but apparently if you want to get a job as a female epidemiologist, you need a headshot. And perfectly plucked eyebrows. I should never complain about any policy which results in Marion Cotillard getting work, but when the male side of the CDC consists of Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston and Enrico Colantoni…. (it drove me nuts trying to figure out who he was until I saw the name in the credits and realized he was Keith Mars - but then I didn't recognize Cranston at all with hair on his head and no meth lab in the background).

The movie tries to get its credentials in order bright and early by killing Gwynneth Paltrow briskly and efficiently in the first ten minutes (a policy which most movies could usefully emulate), and going on to schwack anyone who's been on screen for more than a few minutes. The problem is that once you've shown that anyone can die at any time, the audience sort of tunes out. When you've every reason to expect that the latest person on screen is going to be spark out within a few minutes, you withhold your empathy; that's just common sense. It's why horror movies work; it's also why horror movies put so much care and attention into the shock and gore surrounding each death; it's the only way to break through the conscious lack of emotional connection we all adopt to deal with horror movies. The characters don't matter, so it doesn't matter that they're going to get killed. And vice versa. When you have a grown up movie trying to do the same thing, it just tends to backfire.

So Contagion is a chilly little number, all buzzkill and unclear agendas. Some people live, for no readily apparent reason; some die, for just as little reason. Society falters, and the garbage doesn't get collected, but civilization somehow motors on. It's all somehow lacking in drama. In setting out to make an unconventional movie, Soderbergh demonstrates perfectly why the conventional approach is the better one.

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