13 November 2011

Soderbergh's Contagion

Yesterday I caught up with Matthew to see Steven Soderbergh's film Contagion, a film that successfully mines modern jumpiness about global pandemics and the fragility of social order in testing circumstances. 

Now wash your hands

There's a global media cycle that throws up a epidemic panic meme about every three years, and Contagion milks that latent paranoia for all it's worth, in a slick, highly enjoyable package. Deftly shot in muted, pneumoniacal tones and packed with a top-notch cast, Soderbergh has presented a stylish update on the 1970s disaster flick, with its The Social Network-style electro soundtrack, a bevy of exotic locales (albeit full of people coughing) and a palpable sense of looming dread as the implacable virus spreads like wildfire across a helpless world and order is replaced by supermarket-smashing, vaccine-queue-jumping chaos.

Gwyneth Paltrow must have had fun in her role, as she spends nearly all her screen time looking diabolically fluey and one of her earliest scenes involves her character's cranial autopsy. The accomplished English actors Jennifer Ehle and Kate Winslet play largely identical characters, bureaucratic scientists both, and get to spout gobbledygook about viral vectors and transmission rates, and yet they manage to avoid slowing the film down. Jude Law's prosthetic overbite clearly mark him out in American eyes as a shyster of the worst order, and for good measures he essays a broad Assange-lite Australian accent (but for the record, it's 'maths', not 'math', writer Scott Burns). 

There are a few quibbles with the story, but nothing important. I can see why the writer personalised the initial infection vector, so we can dramatise the initial contacts in the Macao casino and identify with the victims, even if this is scientifically daft. While I enjoyed the hint of criticism of ludicrous homeopathy remedies, a few of the subplots are a little sketchy. It stretches belief to suggest that looters stage a home invasion and terrorise the wife of the disease control centre chief (Laurence Fishburne), but then simply let her go unharmed when they discover there's no vaccine in the house. If you've already armed yourself and broken into the house wearing masks, why not bloody kidnap her? Sheesh, you can't event get half-decent criminals these days. And while the sight of Law striding up San Francisco streets with his silly inflatable hazmat suit gaffer-taped to his cotton Dockers like some reject from Lost in Space was fairly amusing, I couldn't help but wonder why no-one knifed him to steal it.


Contagion is a highly successful piece of entertainment, and one that succeeds despite covering well-worn territory. But minded as I was of dramatisations of global pandemics, I couldn't help wondering what modern audiences would make of the grim fictional universe portrayed so successfully in Terry Nation's 1970s TV sci-fi drama Survivors, which, like Contagion, has as its genesis a super-virus originating in China that wreaks havoc throughout the world. The difference in Nation's imagined world is that rather than the millions who die in Contagion (and that's hardly a spoiler!), billions of people die in Survivors - nearly the entire human population of the world, in fact. The virus strikes so quickly that none of the characters has a clear idea of why the disease spread or where it originated. All that they know is that the cities are unsafe (which is handy, because the BBC budget didn't stretch to deserted city streets), that the only law is the law you make for yourself, and scavenging and looting is the only way to survive until society is rebuilt. I'll write more about the original Survivors soon, once I've had the chance to get my DVDs out of storage and re-watch them. (The BBC recently broadcast two series of a modern Survivors remake. I only saw the first series, and while it was reasonably good, it felt a bit too polished for my liking).


Watching Contagion also reminded me that while Steven Soderbergh is one of the directors who can be relied upon to make interesting and often highly successful films, I've actually seen very few of them. Certainly I need to remedy this, but at this stage I can honestly say that I've only seen Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Informant! and Contagion. After after his early success with SL&V a long spell of relative obscurity and little-seen films ensued in the 1990s. But his luck turned around in 2000 and for the past decade Soderbergh has earned the reputation of a highly bankable director, and one who can take a few commercial mis-steps with mid-level box-office failures and still afford to keep making small, bespoke films in between the blockbusters. Witness the amount of studio credit he must have built up after his string of successes with Erin Brockovich, the Oscar-winning Traffic and the Oceans films, and bear in mind that the earnings figures used to calculate the list below are only for US theatre takings - the global box-office figures, particularly for the highly successful Oceans films, is much higher. After all, Boxofficemojo has his current lifetime global box office takings at a whopping $873.4m:

  • Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989): $23.5m
  • Kafka (1991): -$9.9m
  • King of the Hill (1993): -$6.8m
  • Underneath (1995): -$6.0m
  • Gray's Anatomy (1996): -$0.3m
  • Schizopolis (1996): -$0.2m
  • Out of Sight (1998): -$10.4m
  • The Limey (1999): -$5.8m
  • Erin Brockovich (2000): $73.6m
  • Traffic (2000): $76.1m 
  • Ocean's Eleven (2001): $98.4m
  • Full Frontal (2002): $0.5m
  • Solaris (2002): -$32.0m
  • Ocean's Twelve (2004): $15.5m
  • Bubble (2005): -$1.5m
  • The Good German (2006): -$30.7m
  • Ocean's Thirteen (2007): $32.2m
  • Che: Part One (2008): -28.3m
  • Che: Part Two (2008): unknown
  • The Girlfriend Experience (2009): -$1.0m
  • The Informant! (2009): $12.3m
  • And Everything Is Going Fine (2010): unknown
  • Contagion (2011): $14.6m+, currently in cinemas
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