A good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. That to me would seem pretty obvious.
Perhaps it wasn’t too obvious for the makers of Contagion – a film which started so well but ended up delivering very little.
What’s This Film About?
As you might guess it’s about a virus (a particularly nasty variant on swine flu) that originated in Hong Kong but ends up spreading throughout the world and killing millions of people.
The film focuses on the fight to find a cure as well as what would happen to society in a situation like that; so as you might expect there’s panic, looting and freelance journalists out to cause as much of a stir as possible in the hope of making a quick buck.
Thoughts (as Spoiler-Free as possible)
When watching the film last night, about 20 minutes before the end it occurred to me that it was beginning to bore me. Why? A valid question…
Well, as I say above, it starts off strongly. Gwyneth Paltrow comes back from Hong Kong with a flu-like virus and within a couple of days both she and her son are dead. Her husband – the usually good Matt Damon – is immune to it. Meanwhile, other people who shared the same table as Paltrow at a Hong Kong Casino have also succumbed to the virus, and so it begins its spread throughout the world.
That was good, as was the rest of the groundwork done on it, including all the stuff at the World Health Organisation and the U.S. Centre for Disease Control, but then it just didn’t go anywhere.
Beyond the stuff that happened in the early part of the film there just wasn’t any drama. It became almost like a documentary about what might happen if a nasty virus started to spread. I now know what R0 means in relation to infectious diseases, but that’s about it since I already knew that viruses like this can spread by touch and that we touch our faces a lot.
Part of the problem was that they tried to give a storyline to too many characters. Sometimes that can work, like in Love Actually. But in Contagion it doesn’t. What we have is – with the possible exceptions of the characters played by Jude Law and Laurence Fishbourne – a series of two-dimensional characters who amble through the film without doing much.
I said earlier that Matt Damon is usually good, but in this he was poor. I’ve never seen a character show so little emotion at the death of his wife and stepchild. Beyond that the whole point of his character was to be mildly protective of his rather fool-hardy daughter.
Kate Winslet’s character could have been a lot better and just seemed to phase out. Alright, as you know if you’ve seen the trailer she contracts the virus. From a dramatic standpoint that just didn’t push the right buttons. It could have, but it didn’t. Instead, what happens is that by being around people with the virus, she gets it too. There’s no drama in that.
There are plenty of other characters who don’t have enough time to develop, including the WHO worker in Hong Kong, Elliot Gould’s character (who just disappears) and the woman who finds the cure about half way through the film.
Which leads me to my biggest gripe of the whole thing, and the reason the film bored me.
I’ve already said that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. This one has the beginning and it has the middle, but about 40 or so minutes before the end a virus is found and the last 40 minutes become about the logistical issues concerning the creation and fair distribution of the vaccine. Once all the main characters have the vaccine, the film just ends.
That might be a realistic way of concluding matters but it’s also a dull one.
There are other issues with the plot as well. Like the issues with characterisation, the film tries to include too many plot-points within the time frame of the film. There was no tension involved when it came to the half-hearted looting and civil unrest, or the border controls imposed on a state-by-state basis.
There was a scene in which they perform an autopsy on Paltrow’s character, which shows the medical examiners being appalled by what they find the virus has done to her brain. Only we don’t get to see it, it isn’t described and it’s never brought up again.
There’s also an interminable teen-angst love story, and the film ends by showing how the virus started.
Note: the film starts on ‘Day Two’ of the contagion and ends backtracking to ‘Day One’. But since we knew where it came from, it was hardly an M. Night Shyamalan style twist.
Ultimately it all adds up to equal a disappointing film.
Should You Watch Contagion?
Arguably the plot of a virus killing off a large percentage of the population is hard enough to do as it is. Look at the remake of Survivors.
When the plot is about a virus that might kill off ‘only’ 1% of the world’s population but then it gets cured just over half way through it becomes even more difficult to do in an entertaining way.
I went into the film expecting a disaster movie to rival the original Survivors, but instead I got an educational episode of Doctors where they inform the public about the importance of guarding against infection.
It started off well and could have been good, but it spreads itself too thin and the decision to cure the virus so early and move the plot in the direction of vaccine distribution was – in my opinion – a mistake.
It’s like one of those Bugs Bunny cartoons where he’s not ended up where he thought he’d be and says “‘I Knew I Should Have Taken That Left Turn At Albuquerque”.
That sums up the plot to this film in a nutshell.