Sometimes you go to see a film because of the actor. Sometimes because of the director. Sometimes, it’s because of the poster (thanks to the marketing people behind Top Gun). And sometimes, the title itself gets you in the seat.
Contagion is a big word. An important word. Contagion just sounds sinister. It’s a word with manifold interpretation, evoking the “viral” phenomena of pop culture (check out Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point for a real flagship study of the birth of our contagious culture), and, of course, it’s a word that conjures images of disease, thoughts of sickness, and the threat of catching something a lot worse than a chicken soup cold.
Just say it: “Contagion.” It chills the blood. It almost makes you cough.
That’s what Gwenyth Paltrow is doing at the beginning of the movie – she’s coughing. She’s sick, sick with something bad, and she’s the sort of “ground zero” of the whole epidemic.
From here the movie unspools in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner, weaving together the character threads a la Babel, or Traffic. Only unlike those two films, there is something very understated about Contagion. Moments where you think it might take a leap to the next level, where chaos reigns and your senses are truly blown don’t really occur. Instead, the story remains within it’s own biohazard suit. While you may be rapt with attention for the first half hour or so, once the style fully presents itself, and once you sense the parameters, the limitations of the film, your mind may began to wander.
Films have limits. They don’t have to, though. You can make a film on your own dime which goes as far as you want to take it – as fantastical, as gruesome, as dirty, majestic, or obscure as you can muster. You can make a movie about a man sleeping. You can make a movie about some crazy lady who lives in your radiator. And if anybody watches what you’ve made, either they’re under duress (read: learning film “theory” at school) or, you’ve gotten incredibly lucky.
Films have limits because films cost money. Most people don’t have the money to make a big film, so they ask other people. Those other people say, “Okay, but I want my money back. And I’d like to make some money too.” This is called a “return.” The filmmakers, then, are beholden to the investors. The more the film is shown, the more money the investors make. Storytelling, then, becomes a sort of risk-assessment. At least, that aspect can’t really be separated from any media looking to lend itself to commerce. And that’s fine.
The problem is, the medium itself – this incredible concert of sight and sound, this ability to express ideas in a highly suggestible way, to put people into a darkened room and overwhelm them with a giant picture and booming audition that basically hypnotizes them, well, that’s just freaking incredible. It’s powerful. It can be seen as photography and music and painting and writing and sculpting and architecture and hair-dressing all rolled into one. Everything. Even if it’s a film made by a few guys and gals running around with back-packs and cargo pants, a movie is an incredible enterprise.
As such, when I watch a film like, say, Avatar, and all the stops are pulled – I mean, all the stops (the best CGI, the grandest world, the scope of the saga) – I get pulled in. We all do, or most of us do.
But then I want something else to happen. I want to be surprised. When the blue cat people are there in that stupefying, iridescent forest, I want to just live there. I want the story to take a turn. But, no. What happens is what always happens. After the main character we’ve come to know and root for has overcome numerous obstacles and successfully wooed the one he pines for and they consummate with physical affection, that’s the apex of the arc. That’s when the bulldozers come cracking through the trees. When the bad guy bursts through the door. When “the tables turn” and now we start descending towards act III.
This is where I want something new. This is where I want to pick up a whole new road, and start to follow it. This is where I want to be surprised.
See, I don’t want there to be a cure for the disease. I don’t want the tables to be turned. I’d rather live there in that world, to see something more about it, to go over here and check this thing out, this thing just off in the distance. I don’t want to go down this same old road I’ve been down, accepting it just because this version has different actors and story details. I’ve been there before.
Give me fuel, give me fire, give me that which I desire, as the Metallica blokes say. Caress the divine details, as Nabokov puts it. Take me into the story and then do a freaking number on me.
Contagion, alas, doesn’t do it. Maybe this was why I was a bit surprised by seeing Stephen Soderberg’s name at the end of it. From the director of Solaris, and even Ocean’s Eleven, Contagion rolls out like the standard yarn does, supplying you just enough reasons to like your characters, giving you the modicum of grit and realism pertinent to a story like this, but it never reaches any higher. It never moves into what transcends the medium
Soderberg is retiring, says the grapevine, anyway. And my desires for great films are mostly unrealistic. They’re out there, and they do come along. Contagion just wasn’t one of them. If you’re looking to check-out of life for a hundred minutes, and be sufficiently entertained, buy the ticket. If you’re hoping for a sprawling disaster movie that surprises and shakes you, wait for DVD or skip it. While I admit I was using my shirt sleeve to touch any doorknobs for a few hours afterwards, I don’t think this particular movie will be very contagious at the box office.