As an appreciator of zombie films, I can tell you that their horror rarely resides in the zombies themselves. Usually, it is not the zombies that are the villains, but people. That’s what makes zombie films so scary – they shed light on just how fragile civility – and to a greater extent humanity – is. Husbands will leave their wives to die, mothers will smother their children in a twisted attempt to spare them, best friends will kill each other in the streets over the last shotgun when society is introduced with a destructive element such as the undead.
In many ways, Contagion, the new film from director Steven Soderbergh, is a zombie film in its purest form. The story is a mosaic centering around a few disconnected protagonists all dealing with the same villain, a new form of super-virus for which there is no vaccine. What starts off as a few isolated cases turns into global pandemic too quickly for the world to withstand it, and the very fabric of society – civility, communication, even physical contact – falls apart. The only thing separating this movie from Dawn of the Dead, really, are zombies.
The film supposes what all zombie/monster films suppose, that in the wake of impending doom, mankind will turn to the animalistic, survivalist aspects of its nature. In short, when the choice is dignity or death, dignity goes right out the window. It’s not the “what if?” of societal meltdown that scares us, it’s that it reminds us of the times it’s actually happened in the real world. Remember Hurricane Katrina? How quickly did the narrative shift from people trapped on their rooftops to looters in the streets? How many horrible (perhaps apocryphal) stories of murder, rape, and general mistreatment of other human beings leaked out in the days and weeks following the flooding?
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11. While the media would have us remember the nation coming together under one flag like the old Mighty Ducks and the new Mighty Ducks at halftime against Iceland and uniting to pick ourselves back up and rebuild our way of life, I won’t ever allow myself to forget the racism that befell every person of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, let alone the positively abhorrent discrimination against everything Muslim. Society, in an attempt to defend itself, became uglier and less human than it had been previously. Japanese internment, slavery, the genocide of…really any genocide will suffice. Contagion reminds us all too well of the atrocities we are all too capable of committing against each other.
Aside from being a classic zombie/Cold-war era monster movie, Contagion is also the third of the Steven Soderbergh mosaics about one overriding topic. The first of the unofficial trilogy was Traffic, a film that served as a meditation on the holes and hypocrisies in the American “War on Drugs.” Next, Soderbergh executive produced Syriana, written and directed by Stephen Gaghan (who also wrote Traffic). Syriana takes a look at the oil industry in much the same style that Traffic examined the drug industry. Contagion is a meditation on the fragility of civilization, and an essay on the bureaucratic, opportunistic, often racist, and inherently flawed system(s) we have in place to fight global pandemics.
There are few directors as in control of their film-making faculties as Steven Soderbergh. His technical brilliance, aligned with his always pitch-perfect aesthetic give his films a sort of binding signature. That being said, there are three Soderberghs. The first Soderbergh is the original. It’s the “shoe-string-budget-and-it-feels-like-it” Soderbergh. Think Sex, Lies, and Videotape or Bubble. Soderbergh tends to become more invisible in these films and allow the performances to carry the show. The second Soderbergh is super-stylized and profoundly cool (Ocean’s 11, Out of Sight). In this case, Soderbergh, by way of his cinematography, edits, and score, is as much a character in the film as the actual characters in the film. The third Soderbergh, and my personal favorite, is the perfect blend of the two others. Like the first Soberbergh, the third allows actors to fully realize their characters by way of improvisation or by simply letting the performances breathe in longer shots. But like the second, there is also more visible editing at hand, as well as a strong score. The third Soderbergh’s aesthetic is all his own, however, and often the scenes will end with wide shots to allow the heavy dialogue, the scope of the story, and the viewer some relief before delving into the next intense scene. This Soderbergh is the one who made Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Che, and, alas, Contagion. Soderbergh is so on top of his game here that every instance of human contact between two people, every handshake, every surface touched, every pat on the back, is as ominous as any blood-riddled, “made you jump” moment from a run-of-the-mill horror film.
The performances in Contagion succeed such that the characters all seem to be from the same universe experiencing the same events, albeit from totally different vantage points. There is no over-the-top military guy whose priorities are predictably out of whack. Nor is the everyman character a living saint who won’t give up on the sick around him at the expense of his own life. Everyone seems real. Laurence Fishburne seems more normal than I can ever remember him. Usually he’s some sort of all-wise mentor or some hyper-realized stereotype of black men in America. In this film, Fishburne is a doctor at the Center for Disease Control. A lesser script would have made him the authority on viruses with the answer for every question, but that’s where Contagion differs. He doesn’t know everything because people don’t know everything. He isn’t driven by hubris or vanity as so many doctors are in films, but by the desire to do his job, nothing more. The realistic palate of his character is typical with the rest of the characters in the film.
All in all, Contagion is a great movie that will unfortunately suffer two fatal flaws. The first is that a movie is only as memorable as its villain, and technically the “villain” in this film is a virus that can’t be seen by the naked eye. The second, and I actually prefer the flaw, is that the people (Read: the stupid, stupid masses) generally want the predictable plot with the over-the-top military guy (Dumb.) and the know-it-all doctor (Dumber.) and the saintly everyman (Ridiculous.) and maybe even let’s throw in a shot where the virus actually physically first infects the person at the microscopic level (Stupid.) and while we’re at it (Oh no.), why doesn’t this disease just turn its victims into zombies (Please stop.), or better yet, vampires (AHHHHHHH!!!), yeah (No.), ’cause vampires are in this year. (They’re not still in!) When you market a film as an action film, and the best way I can think to describe is a meditation on blah blah blah, you’ve marketed the wrong product to the audience, and the film will fail to live up to (or down to) expectations.
Final verdict: If you’re looking at the showtimes and can’t decide if you want to see Contagion or Bucky Larson, just go see Bucky Larson. If you enjoy masterful directing, great acting, and thought-provoking socio/political drama, Contagion is right up your alley.