It’s been a while since we’ve had a good old fashioned disease thriller. In the same vein as Outbreak, these films often trade on human fear of mortality for a antagonist rather than creating a more concrete, personified villain. No terrorists, no mad scientists – just the natural truth that as biological organisms we are susceptible to microscopic forces beyond our control.
This is an excellent way to build tension and paranoia into a narrative, but it also causes a problem for storytelling; while the unknowable and seemingly magical nature of sickness allows for a level of unease and existential hopelessness, it also makes it hard to tell exactly where a story has to or intends to go as a means of resolution.
But before I get into that, let’s talk about your story. A woman returns from Hong Kong, feeling under the weather with what she assumes is jetlag. Three days later she is dead, her husband is in quarantine, and clusters of similarly fatally ill people have begun to crop up all over the world. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and various private endeavors seek to categorize, understand and beat the bug, citizens grow steadily more frightened.We follow these various plot threads – government and private medical response and reaction, civilian panic – through a number of characters who help us understand the breadth and severity of the situation.
All of this is done with technical acumen. The multiple narrative threads are clearly delineated, and everyone’s particular place in the plot is perfectly understandable. In this same vein, each actor brings exactly what is needed to their particular part of the show. Gravitas, niavety, perseverance. As cyphers or shuttles for the plot to be moved forward by, everyone is pretty much where they have to be, doing what they have to do. For a film with so many characters, everything moves smoothly forward, which is to be expected from director Steven Soderbergh. After all he made the ensemble pieces Traffic and Ocean’s movies. However, I think that those previous experiences may have given him the wrong idea of how to best approach you.
You see, Contagion, you are at your best when your ‘characters’ act as I described them above – as cyphers and shuttles. The enormity of your narrative makes the very concept of seeing a speculative work regarding the impact a worldwide pandemic would have on society. It when they start injecting person stories into the flow of the narrative that things get bogged down. Aside from a father desperately trying to keep his daughter safe, almost every other attempt at creating human drama falls flat. You are a story about big things, and wasting your time on trivialities about one of twenty different humans we are supposed to follow only dilutes your greater power. But in that overarching power, there is also a flaw.
As much as we deride movies for predictability, it is still nice to be able to chart the course of a narrative with some certainty of purpose. We can’t know for certain when we’re approaching the climax if we do not know what the story requires for a resolution. The enormity of your narrative, mixed with your clumsy attempts at injecting human interest and investment, makes it hard to know exactly where we are in the story, or what we should expect to come as an end. The understanding of the virus? The vaccine? The beginning of distribution? Which of these is our cue that things are wrapping up? As for the central mystery – where did the virus come from? – when twenty million people are dying and the world has almost collapsed under the weight of paranoia, does it matter that much? (Especially when it has no impact on the narrative.)
Despite those flaws, you are still very much a worthy film. You offer a clear and concise view of a world ravaged by illness, a harrowing and intense vision of the fragility of our society and the way in which a single, invisible foe could almost bring the whole works crashing down. So what if your human characters struggle to rise above their plot-given purposes, you bring fully to life the only characters that really matter – the virus, and the paranoia and fear that come with it.
Brian J. Roan