The scariest things in the world are the things in your world. Giant CGI monsters can give you a brief startle, but it’s always the elements around you that can make you uneasy. While taking a practical approach, Steven Soderbergh made one disease this year’s greatest villain.
As humans we feel so strong, despite being physically weak. We have fragile little bodies that can easily be infiltrated by a complex organism with the simplest touch or breath. In “Contagion” that’s all it takes to change the world.
Gwenth Paltrow returns from Hong Kong feeling a bit ill. Then it starts to spread. Everyone she comes into contact with is at risk. At the beginning, Soderbergh focuses on the objects with great effect. The camera follows the glass instead of the person holding it. So the audience is on the edge of their seat as they look what the hand touches and what path that leads. It’s unnerving and brilliant.
Just like the disease, the world expands for the movie. The cavalcade of A-list stars and respected character actors make this feel like the disaster films from the 70s. In an ensemble where there isn’t one star, everyone is in danger. Smaller parts can feel richer because there is someone like John Hawkes or Enrico Colantoni to bring depth into their few scenes.
There have been plenty of movies where the world goes to hell. Most of them jump right to the more cinematic bits of humanity feeling lost with all of the looting and fear. “Contagion” wisely takes its time by adding a strong sense of realism. The closer it is to how people and businesses behave can make it all the more terrifying. It all pays off because the scientific montages and CDC bureaucracy become as fascinating as the panic in the streets.
The script is very good. It feels like a Michael Crichton story without the high-concept premise. However why everyone should see this movie is because of what Soderbergh brought to it. The speculation of his retirement has been confirmed and denied every other month. He’s allowed to change his mind, that’s fine. What’s great is that there is a creative resurgence. Just like Conan O’Brien’s last week at The Tonight Show or Kevin Smith trying to change his career, Soderbergh is giving everything he has. There is not one moment of “easy” cinematography—like the over the shoulder shots that now bug him—because every single moment adds something special to the story. It’s so compelling you can’t look away.
You also can’t look away because the theatre has become a war ground. You only want to focus on the movie as if it’ll give you some advice to save your life. Every cough and sniffle by your fellow moviegoers will be noticed. There is a point when Kate Winslet talks about the high number of times people touch their face a day. It’s that sort of uncomfortable self-awareness that makes you afraid of yourself as well as the possibilities of what others can do to you. Are you brave enough to see this?