...shining light on the media, one review at a time
Remember how your mother used to always tell you to wash your hands before you ate? After seeing Contagion, you’re likely to think that instead of rolling your eyes you should’ve nominated her for the Nobel Prize—just for sheer brilliance. Yet aside from getting across the point that sanitation is important, Contagion is ultimately a lot of time, money, and effort spent on serving little other purpose. The film is surprisingly restrained when it comes to negative content, but the plot suffers from trying to do too much—an effort that instead results in a movie that does far too little.
Like most disaster films, Contagion follows the stories of people who are affected by tragic circumstances of epic proportions. In this case, the imminent threat is an unidentified and powerful disease that wields a terrifying kill rate as it scours not just the United States, but the world.
The U. S. government is at the forefront of the battle to fight the outbreak, as officials also scramble to root out the source of the disease and the possibility that it is a terrorist attack. Not even Midwesterners, used to enjoying the protection of distance from big cities and the coasts, are safe from this disaster, as one of the earliest outbreaks happens in unsuspecting Minnesota.
For a film that tries to spark fear in its viewers, centralizing the disease in the heart of America is a smart choice, giving Contagion an empathetic edge. The filmmakers essentially give up that advantage, however, when they try to cover seemingly countless numbers of characters and several locations around the globe. One has to wonder if the movie’s desperate effort to show the reactions of many different people to disaster is actually just a masked attempt to fit in Contagion’s impressive, but superfluous, parade of stars. Regardless of the reason, the continuity and power the plot might have otherwise had is severely diminished by incomplete storylines and underdeveloped characters.
Only one or perhaps two of the characters’ stories are anywhere near sufficiently developed, while more than four are left unfinished. The incomplete attention and time given to these subplots and characters leave viewers either unattached to the characters or frustrated by the lack of closure and development when the focus is yanked away to a different character in another unfinished story. This flighty approach is particularly frustrating because, despite the limited screen-time given most characters, several are created with a compelling originality and realism that makes one long for a film about each individual.
Instead, we’re left with only one character truly developed to a full and satisfying extent—namely, Mitch Emhoff, played by Matt Damon. The primary focus of Contagion, or where it pauses the longest to breathe, is with this Minnesota husband and father whose family is ravaged by the disease.
Primarily because of Damon’s increasing mastery as an actor, this character emerges as the most nuanced and his story the most moving and engaging of the film. As one would expect from such a stellar cast, Contagion suffers from no shortage of skilled actors even aside from Damon, but most of them are not given a chance to show their skills with the incomplete characters and storylines they are dealt.
Among these other roles, Jennifer Ehle stands out with her performance and deserves credit for making something noticeable out of rather diminutive material. Kate Winslet and the always memorable Marion Cotillard also give the film a lift when on screen and are among those characters who most viewers will wish they had gotten to see much more. Jude Law fans, on the other hand, are likely to be disappointed by the actor’s phone-in performance, as he is given a more extensive role, but fails to do anything more than one-dimensional with it.
In other areas, the production values of this film are high. The cinematography is particularly strong, featuring a filming approach and unique shots that are markedly creative and effective. Contagion also utilizes an array of fascinating locations with an emphasis on realism, capturing the essence of every place, from a Chinese village to a Midwestern gymnasium.
It is the bent toward realism, however, that produces the film’s most negative content. The most problematic elements come at the start of Contagion, beginning with a flirtatious conversation that lets us know that the character in the scene, a married woman, has just “slept with” a man who is not her husband. (It should be noted that, when the fact of this affair comes to light later on, it is frowned upon by the other characters and viewed as adding to tragic circumstances.)
[SPOILER WARNING] We also see several disturbing deaths that involve seizures and foaming at the mouth. In a CSI-worthy scene, we watch the graphic details as doctors perform an autopsy by peeling back the forehead of a disease victim. This scene is not only disturbing to squeamish viewers, but also falls into the category of unnecessary gore of the type that is arguably at least partially to blame for modern desensitization to disturbing images and acts.
The filmmakers apply more restraint when dealing with the violent content of the film. [SPOILER WARNING] At several points in the story, riots break out and looters even break in to private houses, sometimes murdering the residents. These sequences fully communicate the intended fear, chaos, and tension, but without being at all graphic. Such artistic finesse and refrainment could’ve been applied to the language of this film. The offensive word usage in Contagion is lighter than in many movies of this type, but it still manages to pack in a few profanities and more obscenities, with the s-word being the favored choice.
Given this movie’s apparent commitment toward explicit realism, it is ironic that there is a glaring omission in the filmmakers’ attempt to capture the realities of such a disaster. For all intents and purposes, there is no trace of God, religion, or spirituality of any kind in the world of Contagion. One would not, of course, expect Hollywood to portray Christians accurately, but this film’s denial of the truth that people around the world turn to God or at least to spirituality of some kind during times of disaster thoroughly undermines the effort to portray such a catastrophic event with accuracy.
We don’t see any Christians doing good works (unless one counts a nun, nursing the sick in a brief scene), but there are some uplifting moments when characters manage to rise to the occasion and perform self-sacrificing acts. These are by far the most positive elements of the movie and help to offset the scenes when we see the worst brought out in others. Some of the more inspiring moments, however, fall short, as they feature characters deciding for themselves what the greatest good is—sometimes helping their loved ones at the expense of others, sometimes children, sometimes their country. There do remain two characters in the film who intentionally sacrifice or risk themselves for all humanity, but their motivations for doing so remain undefined.
As a result, Contagion’s purpose or overriding theme, if there is one, is lost in the litany of half-drawn characters and their incomplete stories. The pertinent question, then, is not so much what the dangers of watching this film may be, but rather if there is a point in spending time on it at all. All the story snippets and peeks into the ways in which different people handle an international, life-threatening crisis may be anecdotally interesting, but hardly instructional and only mildly entertaining. In the end, what seems to have been intended as an exploration of the human spirit instead culminates into a “life goes on” ideal and the basic hygiene lesson we all learned by the time we were tying our own shoes. Thanks, Mom.
Check out these movies instead:
The Hiding Place (WWP, 1975)
Killer Flood: The Day the Dam Broke (PorchLight, 2003)
The Four Chaplains: Sacrifice at Sea (Documentary, Faith & Values Media, 2004)