Contagion is a disaster movie with a heavy-weigt cast, including Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet. A deadly virus breaks out near Hong Kong, and an American business woman carries it back to the U.S. Eventually, a twelfth of the world’s population gets wiped out, or so the movie says.
I could not find the movie, however. A disaster does not automatically a movie make. When volcanoes erupt, tidal waves swallow New York City, firestorms engulf forests and houses, hurricanes take down immense ships, there are special effects that, stringing one next to the other, create entertainment and excitement. Conversely, when a virus kills people, you can only show that much coughing, foaming on the mouth and dry vomit before it’s no longer interesting and it’s just gross – but not exciting action.
Half of the movie of 1 hour and 47 minutes seems to be exposition, where we see images of disaster, pending doom and scary implications flash across the screen backed by monotone techno-music. There is little action, and the story-telling happens almost like a PowerPoint slide show of mostly still-images with fancy transitions. If the actors weren’t so good, this would be a complete dud. It’s well-acted, though, and so it passes.
The plot, too, is contrived. Most of the story seems to hinge on doctors trying to figure out where the disease started and how. They really don’t quite know, and only in the last 30 seconds of the movie does the audience actually find out. And finding out the presumable “truth” about how it started is really a letdown since it’s so benign and apparently inconsequential. I wonder why we don’t have epidemics of disastrous proportion sweeping the globe every day.
Since there really is no story of inherent human interest, there are a number of subplots that are obviously woven in to keep us involved. So the woman who dies first happens to be cheating on her husband just before, and when he finds out he is crushed (kind of like The Descendents) but it really has no place in this movie. His teenage daughter and her boyfriend are cardboard characters just filling out minutes in the movie, horny for each other but not allowed to touch. One doctor gets kidnapped by a secluded group of Chinese who want to use her as collateral to get vaccines. This is so contrived, it’s ridiculous. Then one of the protagonists, a doctor for the Center for Disease Control who calls all the shots ends up giving his dose of the vaccine to the little boy of the janitor in his office building, as if, in the real world, the head doctor running the whole operation, would not get his own vaccine without having to be rationed. It’s kind of important to keep the scientists alive that are the only way out of this disaster. There are images of looting and violence that break out, and citizens arming themselves, but nothing ever shows how it plays out. All of a sudden there are vaccines that are distributed according to lotteries by dates of birth. Slowly the whole thing unravels and things are good again. Really?
As I tell of these subplots I can’t tell of the main story, because there really isn’t one. It feels like a documentary of an imaginary viral disease. It feels like a disaster movie without real action. It feels like story telling without a story I can care about.
It does have a way of scaring you. I notice when I touch my face now, and I will probably cower every time I hear somebody cough in the next few weeks.