CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: CONTAGION (2011)
By Michael Arruda
(THE SCENE: A crowded restaurant. MICHAEL ARRUDA sits alone at a table as a waiter approaches with a food tray. The waiter places a plate of food in front of MA.)
MA: Thank you.
WAITER: You’re welcome. Aaa-choo!!! (He sneezes onto MA’s plate.)
MA (looks at camera): Now, that’s contagion!
WAITER: I’m so sorry. Let me get you another plate.
MA: Yes, well, when I ordered the pasta and clam sauce, that wasn’t the type of clam I had in mind.
(Waiter takes plate and scurries away, coughing and sneezing on everyone in his path.)
MA: Welcome, folks, to another edition of CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT. I’m dining solo tonight, as L.L. Soares is out and about on another assignment. Tonight I’m reviewing CONTAGION, the new thriller by acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh, and featuring an A-list cast that includes Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Does all this talent add up to a great movie? Let’s find out!
If you’ve seen the preview, you know the plot, and then some. Yep, CONTAGION had one of those previews that pretty much showed the entire movie. Why see the movie when you’ve seen it all in the preview? I seriously wish someone out there would do something about movie previews that give everything away. It’s a disservice to movie audiences.
Anyway, CONTAGION begins with a woman Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning home from a trip to Hong Kong. She’s sick with a cough, fever, and splitting headache. The next morning, she suffers a seizure, and her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) whisks her to the emergency room, where to his shock, she dies.
This same scenario plays out in other areas around the world, and suddenly the CDC (Center of Disease Control) is on the case, led by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne). He sends Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to Chicago to investigate firsthand the case involving Beth Emhoff.
They discover that they are dealing with a new disease, and after some research, deduce that it most likely originated in Hong Kong. Dr. Leonara Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is dispatched to Hong Kong to learn more about the disease’s origins. Meanwhile, there’s a mad scramble to find a cure.
Journalist/blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) tells his readers that the real cure is a natural remedy called Forsythia, and that the government, CDC, and drug companies are ignoring this truth, keeping this cure from the public, so they can make money on their own new drug which they hope will treat the disease.
While the doctors search for a cure, ordinary people like Mitch Emhoff and his surviving daughter stay at home and hope for the best, while around them, the world begins to fall apart as looters take over, and law and order breaks down.
(Cue LAW AND ORDER theme music.)
MA (looks at camera with a puzzled expression) (Music stops.): That was weird.
The first word that comes to mind when I think of CONTAGION is restraint, and for a thriller, that’s not a good thing.
The movie gets off to a quick start. Things happen right away, as Gwyneth Paltrow’s Beth Emhoff gets sick right off the bat and dies within the first few minutes of the movie. From there, the film takes on an almost a newscast feel to it as we watch events unfold and follow multiple storylines as the doctors and scientists race to find a cure.
But the movie never hits a home run with this material. It moves along at a moderate pace and later, when things should be heating up, they don’t. For a film about a worldwide contagion, CONTAGION just isn’t that intense.
About the most intense thing in this movie is a neat scene early on (at least neat for horror fans) of an autopsy in which we hear the grotesque sound of the saw cutting into a skull and see a scalp peeled back. That’s about it for intensity.
There were certainly opportunities for intensity, but the film drops the ball with all of them. For example, when looters run rampant, and people are shooting and breaking into homes and stores, all of this tends to happen around Mitch Emhoff and his daughter, but none of it seems to directly impact them. I mean, nobody breaks into their home and holds them at gunpoint trying to steal food or medicine. I never really felt that they were in imminent danger. They seem to be safe inside their home the whole time. Ho hum.
By the end of the movie, this particular storyline had pretty much put me to sleep.
When Dr. Leonara Orantes (Marion Cotillard) goes to Hong Kong to investigate the disease’s origins, she is abducted and held for ransom, the ransom being the antidote. But is her life in danger here? Nope. In fact, she’s treated well.
And there are hardly any scenes of people dying, suffering, or panicking. This is a contagion!!! Why aren’t people going to pieces? They are, but the movie doesn’t really do a good job showing us this. CONTAGION is more interested in pointing out that we touch our faces an incredible amount of times per day, that it’s so easy to pass germs from just touching things like door handles, glasses, cups, etc., but don’t we already know this from dealing with flu season every year? At times, the movie plays like a public service announcement on how not to catch the flu. It certainly doesn’t play like a major theatrical thriller.
Another problem with CONTAGION is its multiple storylines. There are just too many characters. There really isn’t one strong main character to hold this film together, and the movie suffers for it. Sure, Laurence Fishburne’s Dr. Cheever is a nice guy, but nice guys can be boring, and as such, Cheever doesn’t carry this movie.
My favorite part of CONTAGION is the Jude Law storyline. His character, blogger Alan Krumwiede, is supposed to be shady, and I’m not sure we’re supposed to believe him. Trouble is, I found his arguments believable. When he talks about drug companies wanting to make money off the disease and purposely not telling the public about the homeopathic treatment Forsythia, it makes sense. In the real world, drug companies do often ignore natural remedies, and they do make tons of money off drugs that treat diseases rather than cure them.
With an A-list cast, it’s hard to find fault with the acting. As I just said, my favorite character was Alan Krumweide, and as such, I thought Jude Law delivered the best performance. But like Fishburne’s Dr. Cheever, he’s just one part of this movie and so, while he’s excellent, he doesn’t carry this movie.
I also really liked Marion Cotillard as Dr. Leonara Orantes. She’s fun to watch, and there’s an aura about her that makes it really difficult NOT to watch her. Cotillard, if you remember, was also excellent in INCEPTION (2010) as Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife, Mal.
Kate Winslet—coincidentally another DiCaprio love interest, in TITANIC (1997) —-is also very good as Dr. Erin Mears, and I wish she had been in the movie more. These three actors/characters probably fare the best.
Matt Damon is OK as Mitch Emhoff, the character audiences probably will most identify with, since he’s your everyday ordinary guy, but his best moments definitely come in the first half of the movie, especially early on when he’s dealing with the death of his wife. Later, his character and his storyline simply run out of gas.
(Behind MA gun shots ring out, and suddenly MATT DAMON is in hand to hand combat, kicking butt against several assassins. He makes short work of these guys, dusts himself off and waves at the camera.)
MA: Not that I want Damon to be typecast, but he’s certainly much more fun as Jason Bourne.
(WAITER reappears and sneezes on MATT DAMON, who promptly slugs the waiter in the face, sending him and his food tray crashing into a wall.)
MA: I guess I’ll get my food someday.
Gwyneth Paltrow is hardly in the movie, but I like Paltrow a lot, and so I did enjoy her brief screen time. Laurence Fishburne is also very likeable as Dr. Ellis Cheever, but he always seems to be outside the action. He’s always on the phone asking questions, getting information, and dishing out instructions. He never seems to get down and dirty.
Elliot Gould has a nice bit as Dr. Ian Sussman, and he has one of the better lines in the movie, when he confronts Jude Law’s Alan Krumwiede, attacking his credentials, saying, “Blogging is not writing. It’s graffiti with punctuation.”
Enrico Colantoni makes his mark playing the “heavy,” a government official named Dennis French, and Bryan Cranston is also memorable as Homeland Security Officer Lyle Haggerty.
So, you have all these fine actors displaying their talents, but it’s still not enough to save this movie, and that’s because there are too many of them, and no single player is allowed to carry this movie and take it to the next level.
Director Steven Soderbergh, [SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (1989), ERIN BROCKOVICH (2000), and many others] crafts a film that succeeds in being entertaining for about two-thirds of the way through, before it simply runs out of steam. It does present a believable story—I buy that such an outbreak could happen—, and it does give us believable, likeable characters. Unfortunately, these likeable characters for the most part also happen to be boring. You’d like them helping you in a crisis, but you wouldn’t want to go out for a beer with them.
Scott Z. Burns wrote the screenplay, and while he succeeds in writing a believable tale with credible information regarding its threat, he doesn’t provide the whole package. What’s missing? The thrills!!! CONTAGION is boring! It’s about as thrilling as a PBS documentary on contagion. It’s interesting, no doubt about that, but it’s never on-the-edge-of-your-seat exciting.
CONTAGION simply lacks the necessary intensity to succeed as a thriller. I was never scared, never disturbed. I give it two knives.
(Waiter returns with a tray of food.)
MA: Well, it looks as if my dinner is finally going to arrive. (To waiter, who’s looking scary pale): Er, excuse me, but you don’t look so good.
WAITER: I feel terrible. I think I have a fever, I can’t swallow, I have a splitting headache, and—.
(WAITER passes out and lands face first into MA’s plate of food.)
MA (rolls eyes): I think I’ll just go pick up some fast food. Well, folks, thank you for joining me for another edition of CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT. L.L. will be back next week, and he and I will be reviewing another new movie. So long for now!
(MA exits the crowded restaurant, walking past the patrons and wait staff, all of them coughing and sneezing, and some of them collapsing onto the floor.)
© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda
Michael Arruda gives CONTAGION ~ two knives!