Contagion Reboot

Last night Warner Bros. publicity made a spirited, gung-ho attempt to re-launch Steven Soderbergh‘s Contagion among award-season cognoscenti and to put it into “the conversation,” so to speak. They invited journos like myself to a pleasant, talent-populated soiree (Soderbergh, Benicio del Toro, Gary Shandling, Contagion producers Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher, screenwriter Scott Burns) inside the Clarity lobby-rotunda, and followed this with a screening of the film.


Steven Soderbergh prior to last night’s screening of Contagion.

Benicio del Toro, Contagion producer Stacey Sher.

Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns.

The pitch was basically “this is an undeniably gripping, highly intelligent, superbly-made socio-political-scientific thriller“” — no argument from me — “so why isn’t it being mentioned a bit more in terms of awards chatter, best-of-the-year lists and so on?”

The best response I can think of is that Contagion is going on a best-of-2011 list…mine, I mean. My second response is that with Contagion having made about $75 million domestic, what’s the beef? And my third response is that it’s about a subject — social devastation caused by a pathogen — that unsettles people on a very deep level, perhaps more than they know going in, and so I’m guessing they’d rather just leave it at that and not revisit the Contagion reality any more, thanks.

I mean, I was scratching my face all through last night’s screening, and half-wondering if there was something wrong with me because of this, absurd as that sounds. I don’t mind seeing Gwynneth Paltrow die horribly, but I don’t want to go the same way…please.

On top of which Warner Bros. decided to open Contagion in early September. This conveyed to all that (a) they were going for the money (and a $75 million haul is nothing to sneeze at) and (b) the studio felt it was good enough to release in a quality-friendly portion of the calendar but that it wasn’t necessarily an awards contender or they would have opened it in late October or November or December.

There are three other factors: (1) Contagion is an intellectual-technical chiller (as opposed to an emotional drama of some kind) and is therefore regarded as a kind of “genre” film, and that kind of distinction rarely leads to awards chatter; (2) To some extent Contagion is, let’s face it, emotionally dry or reserved, like many of Soderbergh’s films (a quality I’ve always rather enjoyed and in fact praised); and (3) It doesn’t contain one of those thematic echoes or undercurrents that Oscar-season films tend to have, nor does it deliver some basic recognizable truth.

Yes, it says that “it’s entirely possible that millions of us might suddenly die some day due to a runaway virus” but that’s not a basic recognizable truth. If it happens, that would be an anecdotal fact.

Here’s my early September review. I love Contagion. It’s going on my best-of-the-year list, no question. And I especially loved the performances by Jennifer Ehle (her bedside scene with her ailing dad is one of the few genuinely affecting emotional moments), Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Matt Damon, Elliott Gould and Laurence Fisburne. And I can’t wait for the Bluray, and I wish it would be longer when it comes out in that format.

27 thoughts on “Contagion Reboot

  1. “I don’t mind seeing Gwynneth Paltrow die horribly, but I don’t want to go the same way…please.”

    Another phone interview down the tubes.

  2. Contagion really was excellent. My favorite thing about it, though, is how the usually uptight, pain-in-the-ass, high-maintenance Paltrow was DELIGHTING HIGH STAKES GAMERS all across Asia, some businesswoman on a one-week trip for work running the casinos like Card Sharp Jimmy Bond and blowing on dice for every Asian guy in sight, dancing on tables like a Coyote Ugly girl and even posing with the FRY COOK (!). Those little montages of Casino Gwyneth suggest that she oughta be running with the Wolf Pack as their first female member in Hangover 3.

  3. Big Soderbergh admirer, liked the film quite a bit, but felt it suffered a bit from the “A Bridge Too Far” dynamic of an A-list cast on a huge canvas that requires an elliptical narrative treatement. The procedural elements were more engaging than any emotional ones. It was cerebral without being (or even trying to be) particularly existential or meditative. Not the sort of film that stirs the soul. Like the 1977 film, it’s the individual scenes that have staying power more than any cumulative impact.

  4. It probably has something to do with how absolutely laughably awful Matt Damon is in the scene when he learns his wife has died.

  5. I was under the impression that the movie was well-received but didn’t knock any particular person’s socks off on any individual level.

    Nobody’s talking about giving awards to the thing because EVERYBODY can think of at least three better candidates for every single category that they’d rather see get the win first. Who or what in “Contagion” is the best of 2011?

  6. The Marion Cotillard character story line was absurd, and I didn’t think the Kate Winslet one was much better. John Hawkes was the best thing in the film, but his part was very small.

    The film “talked” about the massive number of deaths, but it didn’t really show it very effectively, or it didn’t make it scary enough.

    I agree with Mike Ock – for me, after the first ten minutes or so, which were pretty sensational, the movie downshifted into PSA mode and pretty much bored me stiff for the remainder.

    One of the worst movies I saw this year given the pedigree and expectations for that cast.

  7. Glad someone is championing this. As someone who has worked in microbiology labs in the past, it’s pretty scary and reasonably accurate. I actually enjoyed the low key aspects of the film myself but can well understand how some would have been bored by it. I expect it to be more appreciated in the future, after we’ve had a huge plague, but only if we survive it. Ironic.

  8. I was totally up for this until I saw the PG-13. I’m not usually a ratings watchdog but the idea of seeing a film about a pandemic from a non-fantastical point of view without an R-rating just felt off. Especially given that Soderbergh was directing, someone who has never been shy about depicting things like that.

  9. >It probably has something to do with how absolutely laughably awful Matt Damon is in the scene when he learns his wife has died.

    That’s the best scene in the movie, and the only one that sticks with me a couple of months later.

    Contagion is not a successful film. There’s a lot of “quality” there at all levels, but it’s dull and lacks emotional engagement. It has no business being on best-of-year lists.

  10. Yes, what a ridiculous performance. Don’t actors these days understand the importance of listening? It’s like Damon was so distracted and confused that he wasn’t even paying attention to the lines that doctor actor guy was actually saying to him. Probably didn’t even remember his name. He must have been thinking about how soon he could get back to watching the Red Sox game back in his trailer. Or maybe he had a family member in the ICU.

  11. Those youtube re-edits were probably done by Sid from The Descendants. But he must have made them before he suddenly became a keen judge of human behavior and took the line at the end of the movie that really should have been Woodley’s.

  12. I think Fishburne deserves to be in the Oscar conversation, at least in theory, but they never go for solid quiet performances like that.

  13. Super Soul, Hallick, JR and bluefugue all generally speak for my viewpoint. One of the first things I said to the person who I saw Contagion with–mainly because it was in a comfy theater approximately one mile from my home–was that it was one of those films you’re more or less glad you saw but would never rewatch.

    There are some good, intermittently well-realized concepts. And then there are tiring lulls and missteps. It’s a mixed bag of a film and the best components don’t fully register, partly because of the cumulative effect of the “A Bridge Too Far” syndrome Super Soul mentioned above.

    bluefugue’s right, though. Truth be told, it’s only been two months since I saw Contagion but I had just about completely forgotten all about it, save for the score. Rashad’s right, that’s a solid score. Between The Lincoln Lawyer, Contagion and Drive, this has been quite the year for Cliff Martinez.

  14. I totally agree on Ehle.

    The way I put it is that Contagion is almost exactly the sum of its parts. It’s not more than the sum of its parts, and it’s not less.

    It teeters on boredom but ultimately had enough to hold my interest.

    Thought Cotillard was wasted in a poor storyline.

  15. You guys must be a laugh riot to go to the movies with… Everyone at HE seems like the kind of guys who like to not only “discuss” and “debate” films immediately after (annoying enough), but also are probably given to making LOUD PROCLAMATIONS about them the split second the credits come up. I imagine 89% of you guys would go with a date or some friends to see a movie like this, and everyone but you thoroughly enjoyed because, you know, MOVIES RULE… But the SPLIT SECOND the credits come up, YOU are the guy who loudly bellows like an asshole, “Well, THAT sucked!” and then smirkily shoots down everyone else in your group’s reasons for having liked it, making everyone feel like a giant asshole and you having ruined everyone’s time.

    Fuck, I’d GUARANTEE that’s 90% of the people here.

  16. No love whatsoever from me for Contagion, one of Soderbergh’s weakest. The film is routine, to say the least, and can’t muster a single character in that vast ensemble that we give two shits about. It has two ideas in its head and they are both shopworn at this point — that we are unprepared for a pandemic and that human beings devolve into barbaric behavior in such a scenario (cue endless scenes of food ration and prescription lines going berserk).

    And the scene that Jeff refers to with Ehle and her father is the height of mawkish contrivance — brilliant daughter fulfilling brilliant father’s legacy (cue cloying emotions the film hasn’t earned). And the Damon hospital scene earlier is a yawner — here’s an apathetic hospital worker delivering bad news in dispassionate, even cruel tones — now there’s something we haven’t see before!

    The screenplay is lazy — ex., Cotillard is left hung out to dry at the end of the picture and the film hides behind its ensemble and ellipses to avoid giving us recognizable people. If I recall, there’s also scene near the end between Fishburne and Hawkes with a howler of a line about the virus itself. And Law’s character is beyond silly — a blogger who apparently becomes some sort of savior/charlatan.

    For a movie about a massive loss of life on a global scale, it doesn’t even bother to make us empathize for a single life in the film.

  17. Hey, Lex, you have some sort of weird epiphany recently or something? Because I used to think YOU were the kind of guy who…oh, never mind.

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