Friday, September 9, 2011

Review: Contagion

Steven Soderbergh is an enigma of a director. One minute he's making an experimental arthouse film (The Girlfriend Experience) or a independent, controversial historical biopic (Che), the next he's making a three-quel to his commercial Ocean's franchise. He's a director I can be in awe of his sheer raw talent with one film, then totally appalled at when he makes a total trainwreck. His latest film, Contagion, is definitely a success, and finds him at the marriage between his two aesthetics. A viral outbreak thriller, the film is flawless on a technical level, showcasing Soderbergh's directorial prowess, while also being a film that can and will make some big bucks at the box office. Stuffed to the brim with a huge ensemble cast full of Oscar nominees and winners, the film is a tight as a drum thriller that never misses a beat, except maybe in its last moments.

The film follows a large cast of characters as they are faced with a viral epidemic of which there is no treatment, cure, or vaccine, and it is killing people and adapting to whatever cells the scientists attempt to put it into to create a vaccine. If the summer's surprise hit, Rise of the Planet of the Apes made the audience cheer for our own extinction, Contagion shows that imminent demise as a very real and very scary possibility. To echo Kris Tapley's thoughts over at, the film keeps the viewer at arm's length, and by design. Soderbergh isn't interested in making a film that tugs at the heartstrings, he's interested in freaking you out, and he and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns succeed in spades. You'll never look at public restrooms, transportation, restaurants, or travel the same way again.

Speaking of Scott Z. Burns, one of the film's better assets is how the script never once panders to the audience. It assumes they are smart enough to connect the dots, fill in the blanks, and keep up with all the smart talk. Aside from an ending (which I won't spoil here) that feels like a way too literal and hand-holding bit of visual exposition, especially compared to the smart script that comes before it, the film never once treats the audience like anything other than intelligent adults. It's an unusual take on the bio-thriller to not focus on one or two characters, but rather utilize an ensemble cast of great actors to gel together and create a real sense of global panic. The film is out to say something about the chaos caused by fear and misinformation, and it does so very well.

On a technical level, the film is refined, pristine, and elegant. Soderbergh's direction and cinematography is sharp, making excellent use of the depth of field the RED camera is capable of. The film pulses along with what I would consider the best film editing of the year, and a wonky electronic score by Cliff Martinez.

Contagion doesn't reinvent the viral outbreak genre, but it's a well-made, elegantly executed, thrilling entry, much like WB's heist hit last year, The Town. It's definitely not an awards play outside of some tech aspects,  but it's one of the best mainstream films you'll see this year.


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