On a whim I started watching Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 viral-epidemic disaster film Contagion at midnight last night. I can’t say that’s a great idea: It kept me up way past my bedtime, and when you’re a tired father pretty much the last thing you want to see when staying up past your bedtime is the grayfaced corpse of a little boy in his pajamas, which is something you see within this film’s first, I don’t know, ten minutes. Keep repeating, “It’s only a movie…it’s only a movie…”
It’s very much a movie, in fact, a nice little disaster picture of modest ambition and tight execution. The Soderberghian excesses that Traffic trained me to look for were there: fathers freaking out about their blonde daughters risking their health by having sex, technocrats discovering their souls when It Happens To Them, sentimentalized poors, overscoring. But Soderbergh’s primary ambition is twofold: to make a movie out of that amazing chapter in The Stand that follows the virus from hand to hand and object to object across the country, and then to pull the world back from the brink of apocalypse. I admire a movie that has such specific goals and trims away so much fat in their pursuit.
Soderbergh uses his repertory company of very famous actors to strong effect, killing some pretty blondes for that Psycho effect and thus training us to wait for the deaths of all the main characters, many of which then fail to come. He leaves a lot of loose ends like that: one character collates interviews for a report we never see, another exits safety for danger and we never see that what happens when they arrive, another takes a grave but secret personal risk and we never know if they pay for it. There’s a portentous off-screen character we never meet, there’s a sweet and sappy resolution for a young character the architect of which never gets to witness, there’s a Devlin MacGregor-style megacorporation dog that doesn’t really ever bite, and on and on. The handoffs between storylines happen so quickly and are edited with such aplomb that the loose ends feel like deliberate signal-sending: This isn’t where the story ends, it’s just where it stops. By looping back to the very very beginning in the film’s final scene, Contagion even not-so-subtly suggests that it could start again at any moment. Thus the grim watch-the-car-crash catharsis of a good apocalypse flick and the triumph-over-nature catharsis of a good disaster flick are welded together inseparably, leaving you turning the thing over and over in your mind, trying to find the right angle to determine what it is you just watched. It’s a neat little trick in a neat little movie.