September 12, 2011
Contagion, social distancing, and lots of dead bodies
Watching the Contagion trailer, I thought this was the movie Steven Soderbergh was born to make. Is there a single genre or sub-genre he can't do? He's done a political crime thriller (Traffic) and a sexy crime thriller (Out of Sight) better than just about anyone, so it's time he got around to a virus thriller. Chilly scientists, dogged scaremongers, aversion to human contact, and total, panicky desperation--this is the stuff Soderbergh eats up. Plus, Elliott Gould! I was all over this one.
The rest of the country was ready for a big deadly disease movie, too--Contagion was easily the #1 movie this week. I'm not sure exactly what our country has learned over the last decade, but the 10th anniversary of 9/11 seems like a good time to indulge in some old-fashioned social paranoia.
The movie is a terrifically good time, tense and fast-paced and almost relentlessly pessimistic. It reminded me of that incredible moment in Traffic when a well-dressed, very pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones says "Get out of the car and shoot him in the head!" into a cellphone. One reason it's so good is that it never stops long enough for you to think about why the disease is happening or what it means, or if it represents some ethical or political message. It doesn't. It's just a great big disaster movie with some of the planet's most famous and beautiful people getting sick and dying horribly right in front of our eyes, and it's a blast. As Soderbergh once said about his style, "It's harder to be pretentious when you're moving really fast."
My favorite part of disaster movies like this is the moment when things go from bad to total catastrophe, social order breaks down, and all the rules we normally live by go out the window. Soderbergh has a scene outside an ill-fated FEMA truck that could be a case study in a seminar on Breakdown of Social Order in Disaster Movies. He's got a few scenes of every-man-for-himself mayhem that, along with sequences of people unwittingly handling contaminated touchscreens, water glasses, and cellphones, make you realize how screwed we would be if an epidemic like this ever happened. We're so sloppy about germs and cleanliness we might as well be rubbing each other's snot all over our faces.
The cast is great. Soderbergh gets excellent, understated performances out of Matt Damon, and he's great in this as a bereaved man who's going through emotional hell, but keeps his head down and holds it together to keep his daughter healthy. You know who else is really good? Gwyneth Paltrow! She's surprisingly believable as an average married Midwestern corporate manager who maybe likes to have a little too much fun on business trips. I haven't seen a lot of Jude Law lately, but I loved his morally ambiguous, possibly deranged, self-promoting blogger/prophet with his homemade biohazard suit (above).
As in every Soderbergh movie, the music is fantastic, with his usual collaborator and former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez keeping things moving with a cool, bass-heavy electronic soundtrack.
Thanks to Matt Damon (who Soderbergh said is "as discreet as a 14 year-old girl") we know that Soderbergh isn't retiring right away. He's still got Haywire (the one with the mixed martial arts champ and former American Gladiator Gina Carano), Magic Mike (the one about male strippers with Channing Tatum and (yes!) Matthew McConaughey), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. remake, and Liberace (with Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his boyfriend.) But I guess the planned 3D rock-opera about Cleopatra with music by Guided By Voices, Cleo, was too crazy be true.
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