A HIGHLY-CONTAGIOUS, DEADLY DISEASE breaks out in Hong Kong and America. Can GOVERNMENT and SCIENCE stop it in time? Can MATT DAMON protect the remaining fraction of his family?
I’m not so much an expert on film as I am a ‘names-to-faces-to-roles’ kind of person. I’m the guy who pokes his cinema-going friend in the ribs and says, “That’s [actor], who was in [movie] with [other actor], played an alien on [sci-fi show], and did voiceovers for [cult cartoon]! I am enjoying this movie!” If my pedantry didn’t rely so much on being able to distinguish people’s faces, I might have seen a doctor by now.
Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, as you know, is studded with those famous faces, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishburne, Jude Law and Marion Cotillard. While that sets off my inner-IMDB like a raging rocket, it kind of leaves me with no place to go. Nobody needs to be told that Matt Damon has appeared in many films, for example. Maybe a shout-out to comedian Demetri Martin then? Point is, anyone who sees this film will have their pop-culture brain tickled. Recognising actors in different roles is essentially Intertext 101.
What does this have to do with a film about a global pandemic?
Well, it’s certainly something you can think about while you’re bored. Huge stretches of this film are either non-essential (like a half-baked subplot involving Cotillard as a World Health Organisation investigator) or deliberately drawn out. There are some artistic reasons for this. Contagion is, as many reviewers have noticed, less of an apocalyptic film than a crime procedural. The WHO investigators, along with the American CDC, are collecting clues, testing hypotheses, and hanging about in offices for the entirety of the film. This is a fairly realistic portrayal (I assume) of what would actually happen in this kind of situation.
Perhaps, then, there is no way that a realistic, meticulously-detailed film about global events can be anything other than long, slow and bloated. There is nothing wrong with any single part of Contagion. Matt Damon’s scenes lend that necessary counterpoint to all the scientific intrigue; the husband to Paltrow’s ‘Patient Zero’, he observes the unfolding events from the bottom of the chain, all the uncertainty, violence and loss that results. Throughout the film, there are flashes of what it must be like to encounter a truly invisible, infiltrating enemy, one that gives no shit about national, cultural or personal borders. But other symptoms may include fatigue, irritability and emotional distancing.
So – whatever, go see Contagion. It’s not like there’s anything else on. And if you do get a little bored, just do what I did. Try and think of every movie that every actor in Contagion has ever been in. Picture it like a mind map. Now picture your attention spreading, along these lines of association, until it encompasses all those films, and all of the actors in those films, and all of the films that they’ve ever been in, and so forth. It takes a lot more conceptual effort than the film demands, but if you commit, Contagion can infect your pop culture brain.