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Incredibly disappointing, even with the talent involved
I was taken off guard when I first watched the trailer for Contagion. It looked like a crazy, off-the-rails thriller that was genuinely terrifying in its depiction of something too close to reality. When I got passes for an advanced screening last week, I had to contain my excitement. With Steven Soderbergh at the helm of a plethora of Oscar-winning/nominated talent, how could I possibly go wrong?
A deadly virus has been discovered after multiple deaths begin surfacing around the world. As various members of the CDC and WHO race to find a cure, the world stands at the brink of a rising epidemic. While some are safe, others must do everything they can to avoid infection, or risk the fatal consequences.
It may sound vague, but with so many characters and story lines going on at once, it is slightly difficult to nail down a synopsis without giving too much away. The film takes the approach of giving us the events on a day-to-day structure, showing how quickly and destructively stretches and mutates. Characters drop in and out to give us varying points of view of the effects of the virus, whether it be from an almost random citizen, a doctor on ground zero, or the scientists in the lab. We learn early on that no one is safe, and the film pulls no punches letting you know that sentiment again and again.
While I was a little flabbergasted at the almost ludicrous amount of montages early in the film, it became clear exactly what kind of slick look Soderbergh intended for the picture. Depending on the location, the colour scheme modifies and reinvents itself. Some scenes look simply stunning in their production values, making a big budget Hollywood project look like a down and dirty, gritty amateur indie. Soderbergh has never been easily classified, and with this film, his first major motion picture since Ocean's Thirteen, he maintains and furthers his enigmatic nature. The pounding 1980s synth score was a nice and bewildering touch too, but I would have expected nothing less.
Despite what the trailers and some of my early praise would have you believe, Contagion is actually a slow and meticulous film that is only partially thrilling. Yes, there is a panicked tone that carries the film for a good portion one that frequently veers into claustrophobia as it dawns on the characters and the audience themselves just how widespread and devastating the virus is but this tone never seems right. It jumps and fluctuates, disappearing almost entirely in some instances, and overdoing it in others. It seems completely unable to settle on any one ideal, and as a result, feels very all over-the-place. It saddens me to say it, considering what a master filmmaker Soderbergh truly is, but the film starts unraveling the moment it starts and never seems to be able to find its footing.
But I think this can also be blamed on the script by Scott Z. Burns. He partnered with Soderbergh before and gave us the moderately entertaining The Informant!, but he suffers here by building a complex, dense and incredibly verbose narrative around a mere nugget of a good idea. Instead of developing the idea into the thought-provoking and horrifying vision we are meant to take from everything we have been shown, we are given a cross-section of stories that intersect at points and fail to come to any sort of fruition. By the time the film comes to a close, after more than a handful of screeching halts and asinine character motivations and reactions, I just found myself asking what the point of it all was. There is some heavy handed satire buried within the picture, as is a treatise on some disturbing realities of the healthcare system worldwide. But outside of these vague notions, it all feels like a huge build-up to nothing. It feels like Burns and Soderbergh simply stopped caring after the basic idea stage was completed. And if they do not care about what is happening, then why should we?
And really, with all the jargon and technical terminology being thrown around, did they really need to talk down to the audience on more than one occasion? I am by no means a genius, but I felt kind of offended that the film found the need to hint and then spell things out entirely for me.
While it was initially impressive to see such a diverse group of actors in roles of varying importance (including Canada's own Enrico Colantoni in a fairly substantial role), sadly there is no real time for any one actor to really make something of their role. No one drops the ball thankfully (they let the film do that for them), but at the same time, no one seems like they are putting any substantial effort in either. Singling any one actor out is practically unfair, because there are no standouts. I realize this is a very ensemble based film, but even the most hardened examples of this type of film have one character that the audience finds unforgettable. This film does not have this character in any capacity. And for such a great pool of Oscar-calibre talent, this is the most disappointing and disheartening element of all.
While I went into Contagion with excitement, I came out let down. For what little the film actually has going for it, it just seems like it all went to waste (including the absolutely shocking death that is ruined by the trailers). Whether it wanted to be a paranoia-driven thriller, a not so subtle satire, or just an exercise in fear, Contagion fails on all counts. It is overly slow, and at the worst of times, incredibly boring. You are better off watching the trailer on loop and imagining just how much better the film looks, than it actually is.
(An extended review also appeared on http://www.geekspeakmagazine.com).
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