My initial reaction after seeing this film was…confusion. It wasn’t a bad movie, there were no obvious flaws, and yet I couldn’t decide whether or not I liked it. You know that feeling – where something just feels wrong but you can’t put your finger on it. So I stewed on it. And stewed on it some more. Two days later and still nothing. Luckily, I have a wife who likes asking questions and she asked questions about the movie. Once I started talking about it, the light bulb finally came on and I understood why this movie left me with that feeling. Simply put, the movie was just lazy.
(Spoilers coming now. If you don’t want the movie spoiled, skip to the rating at the end.)
Contagion is not so much a thriller or drama, but more like a documentary. The best movie I can compare it to is Outbreak. Unfortunately, it’s missing most of the things that made Outbreak an entertaining movie. Outbreak is about a civilization-threatening disease and had a minor love story, a nefarious government plot to use a pathogen for weapon purposes, monkeys, explosions, and focuses on a small town on the brink of destruction. Contagion is about a civilization-threatening disease and how it affected the world. The characters were all underdeveloped and the events involving those characters were more like anecdotes than subplots. It’s as if the filmmakers couldn’t make up their minds about what was important and ended up focusing on nothing, hoping that we wouldn’t notice.
Each of the subplots revolved around one or two characters. One features Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, a married couple who each has a kid from previous marriages. Paltrow is responsible for bringing the disease to the United States and is cheating on Matt Damon. This is how the film begins and it seems like the story is going to revolve around Damon, who is immune to the disease. Instead, Paltrow dies and we get sent to the next anecdote where the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) start to investigate the handful of cases that have popped up. This is also where we are introduced to Kate Winslet, a CDC investigator, and Lawrence Fishburne, her boss. Winslet is sent to Minneapolis to talk to Damon and trace the origins of the disease and her entire interaction with Damon is one conversation. After that, they may as well have been in different countries since their stories completely diverge at this point and we are left wondering if we’re supposed to be invested in Damon or Winslet.
Simultaneously, we are shown Marion Cotillard, an investigator for the World Health Organization. She is also charged with discovering the origin of the disease and we assume that she will cross paths with Winslet at some point. To our chagrin, Winslet contracts the disease and dies, Cotillard is abducted by her partner to tend to his village, and neither of them knows the other exists. This seemed like it was going to be the central focus of the film and was very disorienting when it vanished and turned its attention to Fishburne doing damage control as the disease spread. Our last subplot revolves around Jude Law, a blogger and conspiracy theorist who accuses the CDC of purposely releasing the virus so they can make money off of the inevitable vaccine. This story falls completely flat since the film never even attempts to convince us he might be on the right track and, instead, reveals Law to be trying to scam his own way into riches by spreading fear about the CDC. But again, we don’t care because we’re never given a reason why we should. But all of that is just the tip of the iceberg.
There are two things about this film that are lazier than its script and they both have to do with continuity. The first is something you see in more movies than you think – subtitles. I’m not talking about language translations; I’m talking about little information nuggets that, in some films, can be a simple-yet-elegant device to help move the story forward. Contagion uses some of these, like what day it was of the pandemic (the film starts us on Day 2) or how many people live in a particular city. The problem with this (and in most other films) is they always get lazy with it as the film progresses and Contagion is no different. Halfway through the film, they quit telling us anything more than what day it is, and even that becomes really sparse.
The other issue, and probably the most important factor in my confusion, is that the disease itself was kind of lazy. At first, it’s the deadliest thing the planet has ever seen. It’s spread by air and by touch, it’s extremely contagious, and kills people in four days. One problem: even though Paltrow is surrounded by people in a casino and flies on a packed airplane, she only manages to infect three people at the casino and nobody on the plane. Huh? We’re seriously worried about this? This inconsistency carries on throughout the film. One minute, it’s spreading around the world exponentially, the next minute it’s being held at bay by hand sanitizer. To make matters worse, the characters continue to tell us how extraordinarily bad is the virus, including the pathologist who is working on a cure. At one point, she says that she hasn’t been able to create a vaccine because the virus keeps killing all of their test animals too quickly. Wait, if the virus works that quick, what’s the point of creating a vaccine in the first place? Based on the rate it is spreading (every person who gets it will spread it to at least two others) and how quickly it kills (four days), it would have swept the entire world in roughly one hundred days – far short of the two hundred or so days they tell us it took to come up with a vaccine, not to mention the many months it will take to manufacture and distribute the vaccine around the world. Again, they actually tell us and show us all of this.
So what’s the whole point of this film? Damned if I know. My best guess is that they were trying to make a commentary on what a truly devastating pandemic would do to the world and how society and governments would collapse. Except we already know what would happen because it’s happened before with the Spanish flu (1918) that killed nearly 100 million people worldwide, and the bubonic plague in the 14th century that killed 75 million. The last statistic we hear in Contagion is that it’s killed 20 million people. If you’re trying to make a disease-disaster film, wouldn’t you go higher than the Black Death, or at least higher than the population of Mexico City? Like I said – lazy. Since it felt like a documentary, they would have been better off showing us a real documentary of the Spanish flu. What the filmmakers ended up with was a lazy depiction of an even lazier virus killing a bunch of people we don’t care about.
Rating: Ask for six dollars back. I’m a little lazy too.