Monday, September 12, 2011

Run! It's the Oscar winner virus!

A key moment of transmission from Patient Zero in Contagion.

Steven Soderbergh's latest thriller puts an amusing new spin on the hoary old conventions of the pandemic movie: in Contagion, a lethal virus mutates in a series of Oscar winners before making the leap into the general population.  (Paparazzi, take note!  Celebrity could kill you!)  And with air travel providing convenient vectors for the bug and its jet-setting hosts, global contagion soon results; in a matter of days, not only the "I'd like to thank the Academy" crowd, but ordinary people like you and me -as well as several B- and C-list stars - are dropping like flies.

Which isn't all that preposterous a premise for a sci-fi horror flick, actually; back in 1918, Spanish flu covered the globe in about a year, and killed roughly 3% of everyone alive (or at least 50 million people).   Recent scares like the H1N1 pandemic were only mild reminders of the kind of biologic devastation Mother Nature occasionally decides to wreak.  (Remember all those dinosaurs are extinct for a reason.)

So you'd think Contagion would be pretty damn compelling.  But alas, its atmosphere of panic proves far less infectious than its viral protagonist - or at least, it never makes that crucial leap off the screen to the audience.  I watched Contagion quite calmly - and nobody around me seemed particularly perturbed, either.  Indeed, my mind often wandered from the details of its low-key vision of apocalypse.

I admit there are a few sequences (mostly dealing with the ensuing panic) that do build some suspense; but again and again, that momentum quickly dissipates.  And you end up wondering - can a compelling apocalypse ever really be rendered in a low key? The steadfast avoidance of any actual shocks or scares - at first so welcome in a mainstream movie - seemed to me, in the end, to doom the talented Soderbergh's film; we realized as Contagion ground on that we do want to jump occasionally in our horror movies - or at least get goosebumps from some spooky stuff.

Strains of Andromeda  - the great Jennifer Ehle in Contagion.
Of course there's at least one film, the under-sung The Andromeda Strain, that does pull off a similar contradiction between tone and material with cool aplomb. But then the engrossing Andromeda (which provided the central tropes of several later hits) was powered by narrative leaps far more clever than anything in Contagion - Robert Wise's adaptation of the young Michael Crichton's thriller may be low-key, but it's also wildly imaginative; it can afford to under-play its flights of fancy.  By comparison, the central idea of Contagion seems to have been - I kid you not - that a biological virus spreads in the same way that panic and Internet chatter do - i.e., virally.  Yup, this virus goes viral!  Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns seem to have thought that hook was enough to hang their movie on, and I suppose if you think such a blunt parallel is way clever, then Contagion is for you.

As for me - well, I did appreciate that for a time, Soderbergh and Burns approached their networked narrative with conceptual rigor: every scene pivoted on a moment of transmission (as at top), a little node in a larger viral network, whether it be the network of the bug's own spread, or the response by the CDC, or the ensuing bloom of panic that follows via cell phones and the Internet (fomented in particular by Jude Law's unscrupulous blogger, who's a kind of Matt Drudge of the left).

Compare and contrast - an earlier Contagion movie.
This was a nice formal construct - much of the movie was an overlay of links, rather than a traditional narrative - but it wasn't quite a theme (beyond the obvious notion that some links were "good," others "bad").  There were a few gestures toward the irony of the fact that ending an epidemic depends on severing connections - so antithetical to our millennial mantras! - but those moments don't come to much.  And the movie begins to abandon its innovative structure anyhow, as its field of view grows more complex.  It does begin to work its way back up the network chain to "Day 1," so we discover the source of the virus - but this doesn't provide much of  a thrill, because we've roughly guessed the source anyway.

So we're left to wonder what, by the end, really made one kind of link "good," and another "bad" - you might be able to parse from a few details in the film that Soderbergh and Burns believe trust makes the difference.  But they never bother to conjure any direct conflicts (or drama) from that idea, and so none of the assembled A-listers (and Soderbergh has quite the rolodex!) give us any big moments, although most do well enough in various modes of tense control (Kate Winslet and Gwyneth Paltrow - who seems to be doing penance for her sweetly snobby career - come off best).  As a result, all the emotion is tamped down, way down, so the scenes - sorry, the "nodes" - themselves come off as no-nonsense packets of information - because, I guess, that counts as cool in our ironic age.  But it leaves the movie's themes looking like doodles on the margins of its script.

But then Soderbergh has always been kind of a doodler, hasn't he. Which is why I think of him as probably the most disappointing filmmaker alive today - in terms of apparent talent versus actual achievement, that is.  The first mainstream film he made - Sex, Lies and Videotape - is probably his masterpiece, and though its themes resonate through many of his movies, you can't say he ever brought them to any later, greater fruition.  Yes, there have been a few high points over the ensuing two and a half decades of his career, with 2000 being his banner year (it saw both Erin Brockovich and Traffic, and an Oscar win for Best Director).  But even his hits don't resonate in my mind as truly great movies - they're more like great sketches - and they're counter-balanced by so much slop!  I mean seriously - Ocean's Eleven, much less Twelve and Thirteen?  And the "arthouse" side of the oeuvre is often as weak as the commercial side - I defy anyone to sit a second time through the desperate gropings of Solaris or Full Frontal, much less Schizopolis!  There are six hours of my life I'll never get back . . . sometimes I think Soderbergh is trying to give Altman himself a run for his money when it comes to pretentious misfires.

Sorry, horror fans - this is as good as it gets in Contagion.

Still, a restless intelligence always seems latent in Soderbergh (and I think for many critics, that's enough); he's absorbed in questions of how to advance cinematic story-telling; he just can't figure how to actually do it (and he doesn't have the discipline - or the depth - to think things through at the level of, say, Michael Haneke).  Thus his commercial vehicles, like this one, have an off-hand quality; they're like a series of confident, self-conscious feints at going mainstream.  Soderbergh eschews the kind of formal builds that Spielberg would construct, because they would be too obvious, too phony: the events that would "pop" in other movies happen almost by accident in his. He's also always literally the guy behind the camera, but Soderbergh's loose, hand-held cinematography barely keeps up with his action - even in the calmer, more sedate shots of Contagion, we feel the focus is never quite where it should be; dramatic cruxes happen off-center, or in a blur, or even off-camera (like all movie viruses, this one eats your brain, but only Soderbergh would refuse to give you the money shot).

Trouble is, the director's method is hardening into a mannerism, whether it fits a project or not - I mean horror movies can certainly be formal experiments, but can they be formal conundrums?  (Even Kubrick dropped the mind games and got down to business once Jack picked up that axe in The Shining.)  Perhaps Soderbergh's style is already a self-conscious mannerism, too (there's an odd exchange about attention-deficit disorder in this movie that made me wonder about the director's awareness of his own deficits).  So can a movie be both too smart for its own good and dramatically brain-dead at the same time?  It occurs to me that Contagion may be the first in a new kind of zombie movie . . .

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