Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, is about a spreading epidemic and the large web of people and institutions that are forced to deal with its consequences, but this only represents the surface of what is the boldest exercise in Hollywood storytelling since The Social Network. It even feels as though it were made by someone who carefully studied David Fincher’s film’s principles and techniques, which makes quite a bit of sense, considering that Soderbergh watched it multiple times last year (twice in a single day at one point), according to his eccentric report of his “cultural diet”, which documents all that he watched and read in the period of a year. What made The Social Network one of the most memorable movies of last year was its’ progressive stylization (rather than Aaron Sorkin’s admittedly sharp Oscar-winning script), in which Fincher ennobled the digital camera at his disposal in the creation of a rich, unique aesthetic, and applying storytelling techniques that felt conducive to the film’s themes of disloyalty in a world with alienating media and shifting (degrading?) social relations. Complicated, sometimes elliptical editing, a ferocious pace, and a brilliant electronic score from Trent Reznor composed such a slick experience that perhaps it covered up what a daring piece of pop art The Social Network really was. If Fincher’s film took a microcosmic look at a changing world, Contagion takes the macro route, globalizing themes of alienation, paranoia and information in a world dominated by media and technology, and emphasizing details of a bureaucracy that can bring out the Josef K. in all of us. As far as stylization goes, Soderbergh doesn’t so much inherit aspects of The Social Network as it one-ups them, taking further steps with editing, digital aesthetic and doing so with a daring narrative structure.
With the opening shot of the film, which is preceded by the sound of a cough, Gwyneth Paltrow’s face is de-romanticized, as we can peer into her countless pores. Indeed, the film makes efforts to remove any of the associated glamour from its considerable assortment of Hollywood stars. The otherwise immersive experience of the film is interrupted by the casting of such recognizable figures, such as Paltrow, Matt Damon and Jude Law, which challenges our preconceptions of what role such actors should play. As the trailer itself reveals, Paltrow’s character is fated to exit the film relatively early on, subverting the Hollywood staple of hierarchical casting. However, it is not just with killing characters off that Contagion subverts the status quo, but in the film’s erratic distribution of screen time and virtual indifference to character development and emotional resonance. This is one of the key differences between Contagion and The Social Network: Fincher’s film had a core drama to rely on whereas Soderbergh depends almost entirely on his own creative agency for creating meaning and compelling filmmaking through his navigation of a cold, fact-obsessed narrative.
In the montage at the opening of the film, Soderbergh tracks the initial spreading of the mysterious disease that the plot revolves around. We follow Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, Beth, on her way home to the United States from Hong Kong, as she gets increasingly ill. This is crosscut with other victims of the disease, who are located in several places around the world. The sequence is clearly inspired by the what is probably the most memorable part of The Social Network, where Zuckerberg conceives of a web site from his dorm, and Fincher shows us various characters in different spots on campus that are immediately impacted. Cliff Martinez’s score for Contagion, while not derivative of Reznor’s, certainly has similarities with its’ electronic tinge and also with Soderbergh’s application of it. As we track the disease, however, we have no narrative based orientation, and we seamlessly jump across the map, from “character” to “character”. While the remainder of the film isn’t quite as abstract, it retains much of this approach, highlighting Soderbergh’s mastery of constructing unified ideas through disparate singular pieces. The film’s virtual evasion of individuals is appropriate in that this is not a film about an individual but rather of individuals absorbed into a mass. The MacGuffin of the disease offers Soderbergh the chance to examine humanity, who exist solely through “the machine”, on a global scale, without having to worry about adhering to the usual glue that holds a narrative together (if Nolan tried to make this film, he would break down in tears out of frustration).
Just as carefully as the film tracks the disease, it simultaneously is tracking how the world is handling it. We observe families, scientists and governmental suits reacting to the catastrophe. More so than the spreading of a disease it seems like we are observing the spreading of a different virus: information. By involving such a broad cross-section of the world, the film brilliantly examines how information is consumed; how it spreads; how it’s controlled, by who, and why; who is privileged to access it, why and why not, etc. Most importantly, the film focuses on the roles played by the media and the government—the suppression of information is one of the first instincts in the case of the latter.
Contagion explores its themes through a network of figures—I find it difficult to cite them as characters when they have so little characterization although the exceptions may be Fishburne’s Dr. Cheever and Damon’s Mitch, who by the end of the films do fulfill an arc—and how they interact with each other and the disaster. The individuals in the film are all dependent on technology as sources for communication, be it with other individuals or with masses via media. For example, Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslets’s characters are bound by cell phone, at once linked and disconnected from each other. Cheever is Winslet’s government liaison as she tracks down the disease and tries to isolate cases while investigating. Dr. Mears (Winslet) is committed to her job, but despite directly helping people she comes off as impersonal and detached. To emphasize her coldness, Soderbergh costumes her in thick sweaters and other androgynous clothing. She is invested in her task, which is inherently humane, but she neglects the human aspect of her job. This represents one of Soderbergh’s insights into the early 21st century human syndrome he is illustrating. An early image of the film articulates this in a more impressionistic manner, when a dying man is walking the busy streets of Hong Kong, we see a shot from his POV of the masses of people around him, blurred so as to subtract definition from the individual, all the while cross-cutting with street vendors handling meat, chopping and boiling flesh. In the film’s most poetic and abstract moments, it works as a study of our unconscious connections with those around us (it’s ironic that the disease is a universal event and confronts people with the reality of these connections, resulting in hysteria), our alienation from these connections, and the difficulty of interpreting masses as a mass of individuals rather than a single entity. That Contagion focuses mostly on highly populated cities emphasizes this symptom.
Some of the most biting material of the film is focused on Jude Law’s character, Alan Krumwiede, a popular rogue blogger, who is among the first sources to cover the disease in the news. As the world searches for a cure, Krumwiede claims to have found a natural one: forsythia. He posts a video of himself on his web site, wherein he appears to suffer from symptoms of the disease and takes forsythia to prove it works. He survives the disease, but there is no way to ensure he had it to begin with. Still, his blog has 12 million readers and forsythia becomes a desperately sought after item, driving people to fight each other over the precious available doses, showing us how the manipulation of information can be a tool for impacting industry. Krumwiede’s fame affords him face time on a major news show opposite Dr. Cheever in one of the film’s most avant-garde sequences. The two men are each merely a presence on a screen to the other. Dr. Cheever questions Krumwiede’s legitimacy and in turn Krumwiede accuses (accurately) Cheever of leaking information to a loved one. Soderbergh frames Jude Law from an awkward high angle, and then proceeds with a shot-reverse shot of Law with himself, alternating from each side of his face in rapid succession and emphasizing his distractingly bad tooth (which must be fake). What is being suggested? The figure of Krumwiede is presented here as almost maniacal: a man that couldn’t possibly be trusted, but is; at the same time, he is at least right in exposing some questionable practices on the government’s behalf, so in this case can either side really be trusted, or for that matter can any source?
I’d like to investigate all of the different figures in the film, but with such a wide array of them, it would require a painfully exhaustive treatment. What matters is that all these pieces fit together in a meaningful way and that Soderbergh, with his medley of plastic; metal; canted tech-screens; comically framed hazmat suits; and dystopian touches—people have to wear barcodes in a late section of the film—has crafted an exciting and disturbing picture of today. The final gestures of the film portray a reconciliation of the upper and lower class via Dr. Cheever and a custodian played by the wonderful John Hawkes, in which human intervention of information—and undermining of bureaucracy—represents a victory. This is similar to the series of denouements in Soderbergh’s Traffic, in which several of the characters break free of systematic restrictions and achieve a liberation of sorts. Contagion’s fixation with three different usages of a camera in the final moments—the film even ends with a camera flash—provides an ambiguous coda to the film’s portrayal of technology, demonstrating the different meanings of images and image-makers. There is an optimistic suggestion of transforming the coldness of technology through the imposition of humanity and sincerity.
The avant-garde touches that separate Contagion from The Social Network hasn’t given it a different status as a blockbuster. Not only did it have just as wide a release, but it’s even playing in IMAX, and made almost the exact same amount of money on its’ opening weekend (both made an est. $22.4 million). Soderbergh’s ability to maintain a mainstream status and to create popularized work without compromising what has been an incredibly explorative career is one of his most impressive achievements, and Contagion is the film that best combines all of Soderbergh’s facets, bridging the gap between his broad appeal as both an arthouse and Hollywood filmmaker. Soderbergh has consistently made relevant films, but Contagion is one of the first that feels ahead of its time, a masterpiece pertinent to current day but guaranteed to become increasingly so as time goes on. He has articulated our ambiguous and disconcerting relationship with information in the early 21st century, and equating it to a disease is the film’s most basic and effective poetic notion. It makes sense, doesn’t it? After all: whether true, false, manufactured, exposed, traded, bought or sold: information is contagious.