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Venice 2011. Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion"

Most critics get a kick out of Soderbergh's first all-star blow-out since _Ocean's Thirteen_, but some have reservations.
David Hudson

Let's begin with last week's backgrounder in the New York Times, wherein Dennis Lim notes that Contagion "revisits a conundrum that has bedeviled many filmmakers over the years: how do you make a movie about a virus, a villain that isn't even visible? Epidemic movies have sidestepped the problem by focusing on the aftermath of a deadly plague, as with The Omega Man (1971) and 12 Monkeys (1995), both set in postapocalyptic wastelands. Another option is to invent a disease with outlandish symptoms, as in The Crazies (1973), in which the infected turn homicidally insane, or 28 Days Later (2002), in which they become zombies." Contagion, though, "resists the sheen of science fiction or fantasy and instead stresses the chilling plausibility of its nightmare situation." And he quotes Steven Soderbergh: "It's an ultrarealistic film about a pandemic, and that's the key phrase. We were looking for something that was unsettling because of the banality of the transmission. In a weird way, the less you trump it up, the more unsettling it becomes."

"It starts off as Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns to her husband (Matt Damon) from a business trip from Hong Kong feeling a little peaky," explains Oliver Lyttelton at the Playlist. "People all over the world are infected: a Ukranian model in London, a Japanese businessman, a young man back in Hong Kong. Soon, it appears that the virus is something that's never been seen before, and we meet the men and women desperately trying to stop it in its tracks — doctors (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould, Demetri Martin) and authority figures (Bryan Cranston, Enrico Colantoni) — as well as a number of other characters' view of the disaster, like Damon, immune to the disease's effects, watching society implode in Minnesota, and Jude Law, an opportunistic Australian blogger in San Francisco. In many ways, the film is Soderbergh's answer to the disaster movies of the 1970s — Airport, The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, etc. — using a starry cast as a shorthand to keep the dozens of characters from getting lost in the fray. Of course, it's not some overblown, effects-laden blockbuster like those films, although it's positively huge in scope and scale. Instead, the film's trump card is that Soderbergh (reuniting with The Informant! writer Scott Z Burns) keeps everything terrifyingly plausible. Burns clearly meticulously researched his screenplay, and you imagine that, should a similar virus ever hit, this is more or less how things go down."

"Soderbergh graphically depicts a world falling apart," notes the David Gritten at Anne Thompson's place. "Whole cities are quarantined; there's rioting in food queues and looting of banks and offices. Among this director's strengths is a flair for juggling and sustaining multiple storylines in one film. He proved it with his Oscar-winning Traffic, and confirms it with Contagion: it feels like news stories breaking simultaneously from across the world."

"The film is filled with computer screens, phones, video conference calls, graphics and charts," notes the Observer's Jason Solomons. "It is as much about the spread of communication and technology as it is about a virus…. With Soderbergh shooting and editing his own films, Contagion is well assembled and propulsive, though like the virus, it loses momentum. Refreshingly, the virus doesn't appear to be a metaphor for consumerism or politics. This is a straight-up movie, serious but, crucially, also slightly silly in the knowing Soderbergh style, always aware that it's a disaster movie, not a documentary."

"The film pulses along (driven by precise editing by Stephen Mirrione and thumping electronic interludes by composer Cliff Martinez), rarely taking time to burrow into a character before pushing on to the next," writes In Contention's Kristopher Tapley, who finds that "the film comes in for a soft landing ultimately and you could even say it pulls a punch or two in resolution, but that's also very much by design, merely working against your expectations." Tapley also interviews screenwriter Scott Z Burns.

"As Contagion develops, human panic proves more infectious than the virus itself — an intriguing idea that's increasingly hard to follow as the leaps in geography and time begin to blur," finds Variety's Peter Debruge. What's more: "Armed with Red's new 5K Epic-X 'Tattoo' cameras, Soderbergh squanders all that resolution on downright ugly footage that makes exceptional moments such as street riots and military roadblocks look as unremarkable as scenes set in conference rooms and bio-safety labs. The art of film lighting, already mostly lost in cinema's transition from black-and-white to color, suffers a deathblow from digital cameras that can make do with available light."

For John Hazelton, writing in Screen, "the film loses some tension and momentum in its third act as the scientists and politicians begin to get the outbreak under control."

Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek: "Gould got the biggest laugh I've heard at the festival this year, when he shoos away a semi-crackpot blogger played by Law: 'Blogging isn't writing,' he says. 'It's graffiti with punctuation.' That line was tailor-made for an audience of old-school professional journalists and critics — many of whom, out of necessity, blog for their outlets as well. We're wrestling with our own epidemic, but at least we can laugh about it."


More viewing. The Guardian's Xan Brooks reviews this "rattling good yarn," the Playlist has ten clips and the BBC chats with Matt Damon.

Updates, 9/4: "We'd all like to hope that the film's scenario is mere fantasy, calculated to give brave moviegoers a decisive end-of-summer thrill," writes Emma Mustich. "But as Dr Ian Lipkin, who balanced a consultative role on the movie with his responsibilities as director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia and co-chair of the National Biosurveillance Advisory Subcommittee, tells Salon, these things are unpredictable, and Contagion's plot is far from implausible."

"Adopting a clean, chronological and punchy approach to the directing, Soderbergh holds an observational eye on panic and chaos without allowing the mood to take over his film," finds Time Out London's Dave Calhoun. "It's a disaster movie with a brain and liberal conscience, comparable in tone to Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men, even if this is more mainstream in style."

Ferdinando Schiavone at the Film Experience: "The problem with Contagion is that it tries to be a disaster movie, a thriller, a drama and a documentary; it doesn’t work as any of these genres. From an ideological point of view, too, especially when it comes to the Jude Law character, it's contradictory and stiff. Contagion plays more like a little B-movie or a television series, with a straight narrative line and a visual style that is simple, clear and very, very flat."

"This is Soderbergh's 22nd feature in 22 years," notes Time's Richard Corliss. "[H]is first was sex, lies, and videotape, followed by crowdpleasers like Erin Brockovich and the Ocean's Eleven (Twelve, Thirteen) capers and several defiantly indie efforts (Solaris, Bubble, Che, The Girlfriend Experience). Acting as his own cinematographer, under the name Peter Andrews, and producing many other films (Pleasantville, Far from Heaven, Syriana), Soderbergh is a whirling creative force with an elusive directorial personality. But the man does have a gift for organization, both in putting projects and actors together and in bringing clarity to teeming narratives — skills put to excellent use here…. For a good hour, a very good first hour, [Contagion] efficiently accumulates small, terrifying incidents and images… Later, as the news spreads with the virus and terror propels the population into rabid belligerence, the movie sedates its pulse, softens its focus and threatens to become a straightfaced Zombieland. There's also an unnecessary climactic kidnapping. But Burns and Soderbergh manage to tell their epidemiological epic in a hurtling, compact 105 minutes. Perhaps for purposes of concision, or because they wanted to skirt politics, the filmmakers omitted any pharma executives or federal or local politicians from their character list. That leaves a curious hole, but Contagion is a movie, not a miniseries."

Updates, 9/5: "The film plays like a hi-tech version of cheesy 1950s sci-fi fare of the Quatermass or Invasion of the Body Snatchers variety," finds Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent. "It is entertaining enough, but loose ends abound and characterization is wafer-thin."

Film Zeit rounds up reviews from the German-language press.

Updates, 9/6: "There's plenty of calculated, characterless corporate filmmaking out there, but it's more disappointing when it comes from someone who still carries the reputation of a wunderkind," blogs Kieron Corless for Sight & Sound.

4 out of 5 stars from Pete Hammond in Box Office.



Updates, 9/7: For Karina Longworth, writing in the Voice, "Contagion is very much a Steven Soderbergh movie — as self-conscious a Hollywood entertainment as his Ocean's trilogy, and as microscopically attuned to its moment as his 2009 experimental sketch of the economic crisis, The Girlfriend Experience. It is also part 1970s star-studded and story-bloated disaster movie and part 1870s satire-as-serialized-soap-opera, a pulp-pop confection with an unusually serious-minded social critique at its heart. Think The Towering Inferno, as done by Anthony Trollope."

Ed Gonzalez in Slant: "This is a tony-looking apocalypse whose horror is conveyed through handsomely minimalist blocking and art direction: empty airports, even emptier supermarkets, trash-ridden streets, long food lines in steely-looking parking lots. And as it is relentlessly scored to Cliff Martinez's whispy electronic bells and whistles, this procedural in the end merely suggests a ketamine addict's adaptation of a CDC Preparedness 101 manual, depicting catastrophe in dreamy, nuance-free fast-forward with the single-minded purpose of advocating the supremacy of science (always right, as the stupidly needless coda suggests) and technology over humanity."

"Ultimately, Contagion is on the side of coolheadedness," argues Joshua Rothkopf in Time Out New York. "Take Laurence Fishburne's health official, calmly correcting military paranoids who wonder if the bird flu could be weaponized. 'The birds are already doing that,' he frowns. Do we actually have someone like this in charge? Let's hope so. The movie is morbid fun: training for the real storm."

Updates, 9/8: "Contagion is a champion sprinter-paced entertainment that is in no way escapist, which is why it sticks with you long after the fact," writes Amy Taubin for Artforum. "Tonally, the movie that Contagion most resembles is Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), with its chilly, clinical depiction of the implacability of the natural world and the limited ability of humans to understand or control it, or, more to the point, to challenge its desecration for the supposed benefit of one species — our own. The big difference: Birds are visible to the naked eye, viruses not. Thus the movie opens in darkness, through which comes the sound of a woman discreetly coughing…"

"And so the world ends, not with a bang but with a touch." Ray Pride for Newcity Film: "However it's seen — a bookend to the nihilist ending of summer hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a planetary Poseidon Adventure with an all-star cast helping us tell a vast number of roles apart, or a process piece, an All the President's Men of pandemic preparedness — Contagion, Steven Soderbergh's 23rd film since 1989, is a corker of dread."

"It's probably no mistake that someone makes a reference to Jaws early on in Contagion," proposes Paul Constant in the Stranger. "They're lamenting that the general public can become terrified of beaches when a plastic shark wiggles around on a movie screen, but dozens of public health agencies working in concert can't convince people to take simple steps to avoid the very real possibility of a flu epidemic. Contagion does for viruses what Jaws did for shark attacks… Who knew that the most effective horror movie in years would star a microscopic monster?"

"While it's fleet on its feet and steady in its tension, Contagion is an exceptionally dry-eyed movie about mass death, interested more in how the structures we've built to keep order deal with the disaster than how people handle it emotionally." Movieline's Alison Willmore: "That's never more evident than in the passing of a prominent character who's falls ill while working to organize relief efforts and is reduced to a body in a bag in one devastating edit — one minute a potential savior, the next fodder for a mass grave, alone and far from home. But this refusal to sentimentalize also makes displays of sacrifice and bravery all the more powerful."

For the AV Club's Keith Phipps, Soderbergh's is "a vision of a world that's simultaneously tightly knit, delicately balanced, and prone to breakdown, whether due to disease, bad ideas, or unenlightened self-interest."


"Contagion is certainly the most realistic portrayal of a global pandemic I've seen," grants the Austin Chronicle's Marc Savlov, "but that doesn't make it the most entertaining, or even all that intellectually interesting. George A Romero's depiction of a similar, albeit fantastical, situations in his zombie films (particularly in Night of the Living Dead and the 1978 Dawn of the Dead) strike me as far more accurate, emotionally invested, and altogether important meditations on the human condition when faced with its rapidly approaching end. Soderbergh's vision, true to life though it may be, makes for an oddly uninvolving apocalypse."

"In truth, we should have seen this coming," writes Jonathan Kiefer in the Faster Times. "In all of Soderbergh's four-and-a-half-hour biopic Che, arguably the most dramatic moments involved a guy having asthma. Contagion's most developed character, though omnipresent, also is a tad coy. It requires several spokespeople. The best is a researcher played by Jennifer Ehle, no stranger to thankless movie roles, and here a revelation for her sort of Streepian dignity, a textured softness that makes every procedure-narrating thing she says seem worth paying attention to."

Dan Dinello for PopMatters: "Contagion is the dominant horror of the 21st century, an era marked by epidemics of terror, war, and economic crisis. Just as atomic anxiety infused Cold War-era pop culture, fear of contagion dominates recent pop culture in the form of apocalyptic zombie plagues, viral pandemics, infectious vampires, parasitized bodies, and microbe-caused mutations."

Updates, 9/9: "In its dystopian vision of a present calamitously infected by fear, paranoia, self-interest and the denial of science, this movie is certainly of the moment even if it also evokes the past," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. "Once it may have been hard to buy the swift collapse of order that is made palpably real in Contagion, if Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath had not already set the stage. Mr Soderbergh doesn't milk your tears as things fall apart, but a passion that can feel like cold rage is inscribed in his images of men and women isolated in the frame, in the blurred point of view of the dying and in the insistent stillness of a visual style that seems like an exhortation to look."

New York's David Edelstein suggests that Contagion "might be the most high-minded disaster movie ever made."

Or maybe it's "the world's most masterly Purell advertisement," as Forrest Wickman suggests in Slant. "You're likely to think twice about grabbing the theater-door handle on your way out, and I can confess that one viewer found himself wondering whether he did, in fact, feel a disconcerting tightness in his throat. An early sequence depicting the spread of the virus ('The average person touches their face three to five times every waking minute,' an expert claims) is enough to make you want to go all Howard Hughes. Whether this alarm is justified is a topic best left for a separate debate, but one thing is certain about Soderbergh's latest: It's a damn effective thriller."

"You can't even be sure," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, "that Soderbergh thinks the destruction of social order that might follow a worldwide mutant-flu pandemic would necessarily be a bad thing."

The Chicago Reader's JR Jones: "Disaster movies have run the gamut of natural calamity: fires, earthquakes, nuclear accidents, asteroids hitting the planet, you name it. But ultimately they all come down to issues of leadership and trust: in The Poseidon Adventure, Hackman manages to persuade a small group of people on an overturned ocean liner to follow him toward the engine room, where they have a small chance of cutting through the ship's hull, rather than waiting in the upside-down ballroom to be rescued. Contagion is more alarming than anything Irwin Allen conjured up, but that may have less to do with the movie itself than with the fact that in this era of mounting crisis, both natural and man-made, our leaders are too feckless to lead and the rest of us too cloistered to follow."

"Big ideas and small-mindedness threaten to turn Contagion into unwieldy world-affairs and family-values allegories," writes the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris, "but Soderbergh and Burns are moving too fast to think. Soderbergh's much better at 100 miles-an-hour, anyway."

Roger Ebert notes that "Contagion deserves praise for taking the scientific method seriously when so much hogwash is floated about regarding vaccines."

Robert Horton in the Herald: "What Contagion doesn't quite manage is the sort of epic, all-mankind-hangs-in-the-balance chill of movies such as On the Beach or Fail-Safe, disaster pictures from an era Soderbergh frequently imitates, the early 1960s."

"Soderbergh may not be happy with the state of his profession," writes Jim Tudor at Twitch, "but he's still managed to do what he did so well during his glory days of eleven years ago — make a commercially viable piece of cinematic art."

Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart discuss the film for the L.

Update, 9/10: "Soderbergh, who is more fascinating in box-office whore mode than are many of his peers at the peak of their arthouse ambition, knows the tropes of the disaster movie well enough to detach himself from the obvious, juicy indulgences," writes Steve Dollar at GreenCine Daily. "The freak-out portion of this all-star ode to the catastrophic is (for some of us grindhouse mavens) rather minimized. Although the introductory scenes, suggesting a kind of Babel for epidemiologists as it skips across time zones to show the spread of the virus and its consequences, offer a gallery of extremely attractive actors looking like shit before they buy the farm, the movie mostly shies away from genre excess — although it wins extra points for the chilly electronic score by Cliff Martinez, which evokes the disorientation and dread of a 1970s giallo creeper."

Update, 9/11: "The most horrifying element of Contagion," finds Mike Wilmington at Movie City News, "is how plausible Soderbergh, Burns and company make it all seem… Frankly, much as I like Contagion, I find it scarier to hear that Soderbergh is thinking of retiring to become a painter. Why choose though? If Winston Churchill and Henry Fonda could find time to paint, why not the cinematically prolific Soderbergh?"


Updates, 9/12: "With such dismaying material, the artist's challenge is how to make it real but not too real," writes Caleb Crain for the Paris Review. "If the deaths seem too real, sorrow will overwhelm viewers. (This is probably why John Lithgow's performance of Alzheimer's is so halfhearted in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. If anyone in your family has ever had Alzheimer's, the last thing you want to see in a sci-fi romp is realism.) Contagion has been praised by science journalist Carl Zimmer for its realism — for showing such details as the sequencing of the fictional MEV-1 virus's genetic material in order to trace its phylogeny. But how did Soderbergh keep his plague from becoming too real? I'd say it's by limiting moral ugliness to the villains — to nameless looters in masks and to Jude Law, who plays a scurrilous blogger, branded with a crooked front tooth by the make-up department, for ease of identification as a pariah."

"Contagion is serious, precise, frightening, emotionally enveloping." David Denby in the New Yorker: "It's a highly controlled film about an out-of-control event, a film so sure-handed and intelligent that it has an invigorating, even an enlightening, quality, as if a blurred picture had suddenly come into focus. You leave the movie shaken, but also, at another level, relieved, since there isn't a grandstanding speech (except for one by a demagogue) or an instant of melodrama. Contagion confronts reality head on; it's a brief against magical thinking. Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Scott Z Burns, may not have intended it, but their movie could become an event in an ongoing political debate over the nature of American life."

"As much as it's a high-gloss, star-studded, consistently gripping modern-age horror film apt to make one stockpile hand sanitizer," writes Nick Schager, "Contagion is also a portrait of the terrifying fragility of the tangled biological, social and emotional networks that govern our lives."

Update, 9/13: "These 'end of humanity' films have the built-in, ego-stroking thrill of making the present day seem utterly important," writes Justin Stewart. Also at Reverse Shot, Matt Connolly: "Much of Contagion dissipated from memory after I left the theater, but I'll admit that I remain weirdly fascinated by Gwyneth Paltrow's infected adulteress. Her boozy night in a Hong Kong casino coming at us in brief, smeary flashbacks, she remains an unreachable enigma in a film otherwise purged of mystery."

Updates, 9/14: "In an era predominantly defined by a chaotic, that is ephemeral and excessive blockbuster aesthetic, Steven Soderbergh's Contagion is specifically notable for its long-lasting imagery," writes Matthias Stork.

"In a way, Soderbergh is a victim of his own virtuosity," suggests Dan Kois in Slate: "when your filmmaking is as smooth and self-assured as his, it's not hard to imagine that it might be getting difficult for him to find a project that really feels like a challenge. Every couple of years, he takes a break from the studio world entirely to shoot something small and unmarketable, like Bubble or The Girlfriend Experience, but perhaps even those movies are starting to feel familiar to Soderbergh: same game, different playing field. It may be that Soderbergh's next four films will be his last. I think it's more likely, though, that after an interlude with canvas and brush Soderbergh will return behind the camera, reinvigorated, ready to make something surprising and great and fresh. It happened last time; his first two post-Schizopolis films are, I think, his best." Kois also groups and then ranks Soderbergh's films and offers a guide to the "shorts, TV series, plays, and the improvised movie he shot but has no plans to release."

Contagion is the first topic in this week's Culture Gabfest at Slate as well.

Update, 9/15: "One of the morals Contagion imparts," writes Stuart Klawans in the Nation, "is that an energy level as high as Law's (or the movie's) can be attractive in itself to a wide public, even without substance; whereas the patient, responsible goodness of Minnesota householder Matt Damon (here presented in his chubby, unshaven mode) may possibly abide but is surely destined to be neglected. It's a hard lesson to absorb — especially for an entertainment whose principal moral is that our planet's web of interdependence is drawing tighter all the time. Contagion valorizes the human concern of medical workers who understand they're only a couple of handshakes away from multitudes on the other side of the globe; it mocks and demonizes the multitudes who think of themselves singly, as if their interests were separable from those of their fellow creatures (including nonhumans). Side with the heroes — those solemn stiffs — Contagion keeps telling us; but tacitly, the movie keeps allying itself with the fleeting, the carefree, the viral, made manifest in the brilliant rush of images that Soderbergh has shot in a perpetual motion of glowing colors and ominous points of contact."

Update, 9/16: W Ian Lipkin, professor of epidemiology and a professor of neurology and pathology at Columbia University and a technical consultant on Contagion, in the New York Times: "The first order of business was a casting call for the virus itself. Together with my team at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, I devised the imaginary virus that wreaks havoc… Is this fiction? Yes. Is it real? Absolutely."

Updates, 9/17: "John Powers has a piece in the current issue of The American Prospect," notes Phil Nugent, "in which he proposes that Soderbergh's new horror movie… 'may be the purest expression of Obamaism I've seen on-screen.' This is not a far-out notion; the movie shows how government, which is staffed by 'the experts' — a collection of infinitely rational, well-chosen people working their asses off and keeping cool in a time of crisis — methodically goes about saving the world, while a scumbag blogger (Jude Law) who is the sole representative of non-establishment thinking turns out to be a cynical rabble-rouser who's just trying to make a dishonest buck…. The Obama connection extends to the tone of the movie: it's beautifully made and consistently interesting, but considering the scale of the nightmare that it convincingly brings to life before your eyes, it's not very exciting, which I consider a much graver flaw in a movie than in a president."

"What's most interesting about Contagion," writes Bill Ryan, "and what strikes me as its most Soderberghian aspect, is the way it plays out almost like a filmed timeline, of the kind you might see in a history textbook, marking all the important points of, say, the Civil War. This isn't simply because the film periodically pastes a 'Day 14' or 'Day 133' chyron on screen, any idiot can do that, but because each step towards, or attempt at, a vaccine is charted, and each decision made by a character which will have any kind of public impact is documented — that's how it feels, not dramatized, but documented. Which I guess makes Contagion sound like a snooze, but in truth gives the film a sense of relentless propulsion."

Update, 9/20: Contagion "is the boldest exercise in Hollywood storytelling since The Social Network," argues Adam Cook. "It even feels as though it were made by someone who carefully studied David Fincher's film's principles and techniques, which makes quite a bit of sense, considering that Soderbergh watched it multiple times last year (twice in a single day at one point), according to his eccentric report of his 'cultural diet,' which documents all that he watched and read in the period of a year. What made The Social Network one of the most memorable movies of last year was its' progressive stylization (rather than Aaron Sorkin's admittedly sharp Oscar-winning script), in which Fincher ennobled the digital camera at his disposal in the creation of a rich, unique aesthetic, and applying storytelling techniques that felt conducive to the film's themes of disloyalty in a world with alienating media and shifting (degrading?) social relations. Complicated, sometimes elliptical editing, a ferocious pace, and a brilliant electronic score from Trent Reznor composed such a slick experience that perhaps it covered up what a daring piece of pop art The Social Network really was. If Fincher's film took a microcosmic look at a changing world, Contagion takes the macro route, globalizing themes of alienation, paranoia and information in a world dominated by media and technology, and emphasizing details of a bureaucracy that can bring out the Josef K. in all of us. As far as stylization goes, Soderbergh doesn't so much inherit aspects of The Social Network as it one-ups them, taking further steps with editing, digital aesthetic and doing so with a daring narrative structure."

Contagion has screened Out of Competition in Venice and opens in the US on Friday. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @thedailyMUBI on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.


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