I usually see movies two or three days before my review is scheduled to run, which means I’m lucky enough to have a few days to think about the film and work on my review as I explore my reaction, research the filmmakers, and engage in the almost constant rounds of internal argument that drive most critics. A film’s effects grow and change over time, and I try to incorporate those effects into the reviews and use them to understand the film. Yet it’s been just shy of 48 hours since I sat down to watch Contagion, and the film has already slid from my mind and vanished into the ether of my subconscious. It barely registered even as it was unfolding with all the steely, empty-souled precision Steven Soderbergh seems to bring to his modern projects, and days later I find I can recall the film only in scattered bursts reminiscent of its own fractured non-scenes. Maybe this is where Soderbergh’s been going all along. He’s talked recently of plans to, if not retire, then at least radically reduce his output. “I’m out of ways of telling art,” he’s said. Watching Contagion, it’s hard to argue. The film possesses a coldness and inhumanity that’s been growing in Soderbergh’s films for years — from the plastic lows of Ocean’s Twelve to the staggeringly mismanaged tone of The Informant! — and it suffers from an emotional remove that renders its half-hearted attempts at characterization meaningless. It’s like a mirror image of the virus at the heart of the story: quick, indiscriminate, and concerned with people only as tasks to be crossed off a list, never as ends in themselves.
And there are, at first glance, a lot of people in this movie. The script from Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant!) is about a deadly virus that begins spreading rapidly around the world, and it practically chokes to death on its characters. There’s Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), a woman who picks up a virus in Hong Kong and facilitates its spread to the U.S.; her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), who remains immune; Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), a doctor with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), one of Cheever’s field agents who spearheads medical relief efforts; Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), with the World Health Organization; Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), one of the doctors at the forefront of hunting for a cure; Alan Krumweide (Jude Law), a tabloid-style blogger convinced that the virus is a government-orchestrated plot; Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould), a California doctor trying to do his part for the virus’ research team; Roger (John Hawkes), a janitor who works for Cheever and has legitimate fears of losing a son to infection; Aubrey Cheever (Sanaa Lathan), Ellis’ wife; and more, and more, and more. I’ve listed them in bulk in the hope of giving you some idea of what it’s like to actually try and watch Contagion, to follow its disparate but equally lifeless plot lines, to attempt to care about people who are introduced with broad strokes and shuffled off screen for minutes (or, in one case, hours) at a time with nary an apparent thought of what their presence or absence should or could mean.
Soderbergh’s film starts with a basic idea —disease is scary and it makes people panic — and just blandly riffs on it for a stultifying 105 minutes. It’s not just that we never spend enough time with any character to invest in their lives. It’s that Soderbergh seems determined to constantly cut whenever a scene actually starts to build momentum, and in that cut to transition to another place, another time, another person unrelated to the one we just saw. There’s not a single fiber of connective tissue between any of the scenes. They all happen to the same people, and in the same basic assemblage of moments that could charitably be called a story, but they’re shoved together like wooden blocks. There’s no energy here at all. Worse yet, by robbing the story of characterization, Soderbergh makes it impossible to rejoice when something good happens. There are a few victories in the film, but they’re hollow because we don’t care about the winners.
Yet it’s a beautiful film. There’s no denying that. Soderbergh shot it himself, as he’s done many times in his career, and there’s a gorgeous sheen to the way he captures the bluntly practical technology used to analyze and avoid the virus: The hazmat suits are somehow cartoonish and radiant all at once, and the labs are stripped of anything that might resemble Hollywood sheen. Similarly, Soderbergh’s style here, somewhere between minimalism and emotional retardation, means that the spread of the virus is an invisible but tangible thing, conveyed with nothing more than effective close-ups of bus handles, doorknobs, and ATMs. He shifts color palettes with ease, moving between the frosty blues of Mitch’s snowbound home to the warm wood tones of Cheever’s office. Taken as a series of stills, it’s pretty to look at.
Yet Soderbergh can’t outrun the fact that there’s no story, just a bunch of things that happen to a bunch of cardboard cutouts that might be called people. One character is kidnapped and disappears for much of the film, only to reappear at the end and then vanish again, as if Burns never got around to writing the last few pages of the script. (There’s also the moment where one character says to another, “I’m going to tell you something, but you can’t tell anyone.” Did Burns accept some kind of dare to use the oldest line in the book to set up a few sequences of cheap panic?) Characters come and go, and some of them die, but none of it ever connects. Soderbergh only wants us to view the characters as abstractions, temporary meat sacks with which he can illustrate the randomness and efficacy of a modern-day plague. But when there’s no one to care about — no one we really spend time with or learn about — there can be no understanding or deeper resonance. The disease is just a disease, and its victims are a faceless mass. Contagion was Soderbergh’s chance to put a face on suffering, to explore the ways global panic and anarchy affect people on a small scale. But his focus is too small: He’s looking through a camera, and he thinks it’s a microscope.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.