The thing about disease movies is that they’re almost always dumb action flicks. Sometimes they’re dumb horror flicks, but not usually the big name ones. Nope. Usually, you got some horrible, fatal disease that will kill the world, and the action revolves around people chasing a vial of either the disease or the cure. And it usually flies up in the air at some point, with people scrambling to catch it.
Steven Soderbergh’s latest, Contagion, isn’t any of that.
It’s basically a straight-on look at what would happen if a midwestern floozy (Gwyneth Paltrow) contracted a horrible new disease in China and brought it through a bunch of airports on her way home. There are biologists having trouble isolating the disease, a CDC dealing with political issues, crazy internet theories, riots, crime, murder, people who were prepared and people who weren’t, and so on. It’s never suggested that everyone in the world will die from the disease, but 1% or 2% dying seems horrible enough—and at one point, it’s suggested that maybe 20% will die.
It’s basically a hyper-realistic look at things. Which is to say, a lot of the usual dramatic conventions are not used. There is music, but there are long stretches with out it. There isn’t a single character whose journey we follow, but many characters, many of whom die. There is no hero, but there are isolated actions of heroism. There is criminality but far more human frailty.
It reminds a lot of Soderbergh’s earlier work, Traffic.
Dramatically, the aversion to certain sensational conventions has made Contagion somewhat muted, emotionally. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily: The film engages on a lot of levels, but not necessarily the ones that cause people to marvel at the film making.
I kind of did. You don’t see a lot of restraint these days. At the same time, as The Boy said, you didn’t know who was going to live or die, and you cared, but not necessarily very much. The aversion to mawkishness led to a certain distance.
Nonetheless, this may be the best movie about a disease ever, and it’s certainly the least stupid.