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October 25th, 2011

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07:09 am - Contagion
I went to see Contagion on Sunday. This is a film about a global pandemic. It's directed by Steve Soderburg, who directed The Limey and Erin Brockovitch, so he knows what he's doing. It most resembles the disaster movies of the 1970s, the best of which were Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure.

The most striking resemblance to Towering Inferno is the rapid-fire use of a lot of famous faces. I quickly see Jude Law, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Bryan Cranston (yay!), Elliot Gould, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Ehle (hearts her), and it goes on. This is not just a gimmick, though it is a gimmick, but I think the point of recruiting famous actors in a schlocky disaster flick is to establish the humanity and individuality of each victim before you threaten them with the eponymous disaster. And I could give you a couple-of-sentence character resume of each of those characters so it worked. FWIW my favourite instant-noodle characters were Winslet and Ehle. But they all do a good job.

Other strong points of this film are good production values, a tightly written script with a few real sweet zingers and no insultingly stupid bits, and a sensible grown-up storyline. For example there is a (roughly) realistic picture of the pace of vaccine development, and the breakdown of social order stated but not ridiculously overstated.

The big weakness of this film, compared with let us say Towering Inferno, is the absence of claustrophobic terror. Because what is portrayed is a broad global issue, you do not get the panic, the feeling of being trapped, the extreme compression of time and space of the disaster. It is not a pressure-cooker of peril. And therefore you do not get the catharsis at the end.

In fact this is a problem I have with Soderburg films in general, for example Ocean's Eleven or the remake of Solaris: I don't feel them intensely. This is no exception. It is well made, and it's about an interesting subject, and I was entertained throughout. But I didn't get the intense emotional ride of a nice cheerful disaster movie.

(3 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:October 29th, 2011 07:14 am (UTC)
The big weakness of this film, compared with let us say Towering Inferno, is the absence of claustrophobic terror.

I noticed this too. The film comes across as clinical, not at all dramatic.

I'm not sure it's a weakness though. In fact, I think it might be the whole point.

I got to wondering if the film is attempting to be the antithesis of Jude Law's character's website Truth Serum Now. Instead of stirring up panic, it's presenting a matter-of-fact account. It's demonstrating that when (not if) there's a pandemic, life will still go on. Scientists will work to find a vaccine, governments will work to keep order, food and medicine will be provided. Yes, people will get sick and people will die. But the wheels of the system will start to move to save as many people as possible and society will not collapse and thought it will be terrifying and we will suffer losses, civilization as a whole will come out the other end unscathed.

And I wonder if putting this calm and clinical picture of an instance of a contagious disease on the loose isn't an attempt at altering the culture just a little bit, so that there might be a little less panic and a little less disorder. An attempt by the filmmaker to instil some calm into the general public so that they're not whipped into quite such a frenzy by other factions of the media when the time comes.

Or maybe I'm reading too much into it. But I don't think the fact that it didn't have the emotional impact of other disaster movies makes it a weak disaster movie, I think it makes it something other than a disaster movie.
[User Picture]
Date:October 29th, 2011 07:44 am (UTC)
That is a fascinating point of view. True Jude Law's figure is the villain of the piece, and I think we are supposed to take away that message. But I never considered the emotional cooling to be the message, rather than a failure - and yet I can see that being a moral decision by the film maker. I don't know, but I see what you mean.
[User Picture]
Date:November 15th, 2011 11:07 pm (UTC)
I had a theory that nuclear bombs were constantly being detonated and torture was constantly being used in the series 24 to train the viewing public in a 'Manufacturing Consent' kind of way.

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