It was spreading, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. For some mad reason, all the critics were praising Contagion. More and more people went to the film, and it infected each of them in turn. People with perfectly rational views of cinema were gone in a matter of days, replaced by a new crowd of bandwagoning zombies.
And I was not immune. Drawn by the allure and mystery of a movie that looked like an even worse version of The Core (“They don’t have to weaponize the bird flu. The birds are already doing that!” one character claims in the trailer, the epitome of absurd fear mongering), I found myself suddenly at the movie theater with no recollection of how I’d gotten there. I looked down, and in my hand was a ticket. As a firm believer in the power of sunk costs, I headed in and proceeded to watch no characters do anything. Ever.
Contagion opens with a dialogue-free sequence of people all around the world getting sick. The screen flashes with the name of the city and its population, and you’re immediately afraid. “Oh shit! That’s a big number!” is generally what I thought to myself throughout this, and it’s actually really frightening—all these close-ups of people coughing and then touching surfaces, then eventually dying. Unfortunately, the movie was far from able to maintain that sort of momentum.
I call it the Contagion Effect—it had so much potential!
Do it yourself! Hey kids, here’s something you can try at home! Think of something that had a lot of great potential but then just fizzled out—your idea for a flying car, for example, or that cute girl before she hit puberty, or your parents’ relationship. Great! Now say “Yeah, that really succumbed to the Contagion Effect.” There. You’ve done it! To get even more out of this, go look up the word succumbed.
The movie manages to remain enthralling for about half an hour, but then you realize that it’s not so much a film as it is a newscast of what it would be like should such an outbreak occur—news reports and scientists going over data, but nothing remotely like a movie. None of the characters gets into any dire situations, and none of them ever takes any real action.
While the movie boasts a huge ensemble cast, the main character is the disease itself. None of the other players gets enough screen time for you to develop any emotional attachment. The closest we come to this is Matt Damon, and, boy, was I dying for him to become a badass! He starts out as this regular dad whose wife is the first known case of the virus, and we find out his wife’s cheating on him in the first scene, so we as viewers would be okay if he ended up with a new love interest. When it turns out he’s immune, he is the key to saving the world. Scratch that. Nobody gives a shit. But then, when the entire city goes into lockdown and riots start to take over, when food becomes scarce and people turn on each other, Matt Damon must do everything he can to protect his daughter, the last person on earth he cares about, and there’s no telling whether she’s immune. Scratch that. Although the movie gives him every opportunity, he never does a damn thing!
Nobody does. They just sort of live their lives, or, if they get sick, they die. That’s it. The only person who does anything at all is the scientist who finds the cure, and do you know what she did? Well, she found the cure. Man, that’s some serious excitement there—all those shots of her doing research in the lab, doing some testing, and then, that’s right folks, she finds the cure.
For all that, the movie was still relatively compelling, and I’ve figured out why: It’s not because it’s a good movie; it’s because we can relate to this issue. This is a scenario that’s so feasible that we’re all scared of it, whether or not we’ve given it any conscious thought. Even without any compelling characters or plot or drama or anything, the sheer numbers and scope are horrifying, and I never want to touch any surface again.
I recommend doing what the characters do: Stay inside and avoid this like the plague, or maybe more like swine flu—I mean, it’s not that bad.
I wouldn’t have been nearly as afraid if the music hadn’t punctuated every mention of the virus spreading, every scene of death, and every close-up of a surface, so good work Cliff Martinez.
For those of you who’ve seen the movie, what about those unresolved plotlines? The way that one girl who gets kidnapped just sort of walks away toward the end, never to be heard from again? Or the bitchy lady who keep thinking of money instead of saving lives, and after a while she just stops showing up, no comeuppance delivered? Just another reason it didn’t feel like a movie.