The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Reviewed by Pete Falconer.

Director Steven Soderbergh
Length 106 mins
Certificate 12A / PG-13
Rating *******---
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 3

Photo from the article Trailer.

Across his career, Steven Soderbergh has embraced a wide range of different forms, modes and styles of filmmaking. This has produced an interesting but uneven body of work - some of his chosen approaches have been more effective than others. Judged on these terms, Contagion is a success. The style that Soderbergh adopts for the movie works well, relating to the subject matter in a thoughtful and rigorous fashion.

The film concerns a deadly and highly contagious flu-like virus which kills millions of people throughout the developed world. We follow a number of different characters, whose parallel storylines are used to show us different aspects of the epidemic and its devastating consequences. These characters include Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), the husband of the woman who brought the disease to America, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), who is investigating the spread of the virus and Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a controversial blogger who accuses the authorities of ignoring or suppressing a cure.

This approach to storytelling, where our interests and sympathies are spread relatively widely, serves a number of purposes. First of all, it is used to convey a sense of scale. We see the effects of the epidemic in a variety of different settings and contexts, which create an impression of the magnitude of the problem. The film’s diffuse focus also means that there is no single character or perspective with which we are encouraged to align ourselves. We have access to more information than any individual character does, but this information is also often fragmented and contradictory. From this, we are able to feel a version of the frightening uncertainty that the epidemic provokes, but we remain aware that we are experiencing this at a safe remove.

The film maintains our sense of a detached, observational perspective through its visual style. Soderbergh’s interest in digital filmmaking serves him well here. He uses the hardness and lack of texture that high-resolution digital photography can provide to create images that are sharp and clear but also feel somehow distant. The movie generally avoids techniques that would suggest subjective involvement or emotional intensity. There are few elaborate camera movements or unusual angles. The editing is unobtrusive and much of the film is bathed in pale grey light.

Contagion strives so hard to create this perspective because it is the only appropriate way that it can treat its main themes. The movie is more about the fear and panic caused by the epidemic than it is about the disease itself. If we were invited to share the experiences and perceptions of the characters more directly, this dimension would be much less apparent. The film’s interest in the ways in which the virus is transmitted from person to person also requires careful handling. It would have been easy to linger on these processes in a squeamish or sensationalistic way, but Soderbergh’s more measured style helps the movie avoid this.

The approach does have its drawbacks. The perspective we are invited to take can feel rather aloof, even condescending. Some of the material we are offered as examples of the social devastation caused by the virus - starving mobs, home invasions, gangs of young people - seems calculated to play on easy middle-class fears. However, the film’s overall restraint means that these elements are not given excessive emphasis. If Contagion is perhaps a little too successful at distancing us from the events it depicts, it is still a film of admirable precision and balance. It may not be beautiful, but it is certainly elegant.

This review was published on November 08, 2011.

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