If I had it my way, I would go my entire life without seeing Gwyneth Paltrow's skull sawed open and the skin on her head peeled back. But this is what happens as doctors performed an autopsy on her Contagion character, Beth Emhoff. It's the kind of moment where you put your hand up in front of your face to block the disgusting sight, but still kind of peek around your fingers so you don't miss what's going on in the movie. Contagion, which has been marketed as an action/thriller about a global disease pandemic, kind of misses its target audience, aside from revealing the inside of Paltrow's forehead.
Here's how Beth ends up getting her skull chopped in half: she returns home to Chicago after spending time in Hong Kong for business and what she thinks is jet lag ends up sending her into seizures and taking her life within merely a few days, along with that of her young son. The unknown disease spreads fast, as these things tend to do in the movies, and soon reaches epidemic proportions. Meanwhile, at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) contracts a team of highly skilled doctors to identify the disease, identify the first patient and develop a vaccination.
Contagion succeeds as a PSA for why washing your hands is important and would probably make for a lucrative hand sanitizer ad campaign. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've been this film before, only in short form as a Lysol ad. It begins with a montage of people touching their faces, kids in schools, little bowls of peanuts sitting on a bar while numerous people reach in for a nibble. This theme continues throughout the film and close ups are held for just long enough to convey how truly disgusting everything around us is. Hypochondriacs be warned - this movie will likely drive you batty.
Along with the imagery and statistics scattered throughout, the film creates a sense of paranoia thanks to the inclusion of a conspiracy theorist health and wellness blogger named Alan (Jude Law), who questions every move the CDC makes and posts his theories for his Twitter followers. Law does an excellent job portraying the super d-bag blogger, who seems like he was plucked straight out of the interwebs circa the most recent H1N1 scare. Perhaps had they fleshed out his storyline a little more and dropped some of the more underdeveloped storylines, the film could have had more direction.
Despite being crammed full with more Oscar winners and nominees than you'd find at a party at Leonard Dicaprio's house, Contagion falls a bit flat. Many of them are foaming at the mouth (no joke) to get an opportunity to use their talent, but the opportunity just isn't there. One of my personal favorites, Marion Cotillard, plays a World Health Organization doctor who is sent to China in order to track down the initial patient and how she may have contracted the disease. After being taken captive by people hoping to get their village the vaccine first, her storyline mostly just fizzles out. The best, most human performance didn't come from an Oscar winner, but rather from Jennifer Ehle, as a doctor working to develop a vaccine for the disease.
Perhaps it's because I've been spoiled the last couple years watching all of my favorite TV shows and movies in HD, but I wasn't a fan of the somewhat lo-fi cinematic approach taken in Contagion. The almost bleak look of the film, had its place in creating a sense of urgency, but if you're making a movie in which the villain is microscopic, I would think you'd want the film's definition to be as crisp as possible.
Though billed as an action/thriller, most of the thrills were highlighted in montages set to techno music. Though the content of the film was relevant and important, at least in showing how paranoia and terror escalates in times of a potential epidemic, the film was neither action-packed nor thrilling. Hopefully watching Contagion evokes enough paranoia in people to get them to stop coughing directly into their hands, because that's disgusting.
Starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard and Jude Law.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh.