When I was ten years old, I bought a book called The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. It was the true story of the Ebola and Marburg viruses and their outbreaks over the years, and it scared the hell out of me. I was genuinely convinced that if I didn’t wash my hands every few minutes I was going to contract the Ebola virus (in Nova Scotia…) Paradoxically my fear did not spur me to avoid disease-related books and movies, but to seek them out. Viruses are my Jason Voorhees, so when I heard a new disease movie was coming out, I had to go, even if the story seemed a bit nebulous.
A husband, a CDC officer, a WHO representative, and a blogger attempt to cope with the emergence of a highly infectious new disease that is causing a pandemic.
Since diseases are so scary to me, I assumed that watching any disease movie would cause me to spend most of this weekend cowering in my apartment with a bottle of hand sanitizer and a scarf over my face. But then I saw Contagion and I learned something new: disease movies can be boring. Really really boring.
As you can see from the poster and the nebulous logline, writer Scott Z. Burns decided to cast his net very wide and incorporate all of the major disease plotlines commonly used in movies: ordinary people dealing with disease (a la 28 Days Later), a search for a cure (I am Legend), the CDC’s response to an outbreak (Outbreak), and tracking down and understanding the disease (And the Band Played On). The result is that he’s flipping back and forth so often that we don’t really get absorbed in any of them. Even he forgets about some of them, leaving their plot threads dangling.
Here are some photos that aid my investigation. But instead of running with this,
let’s move on to see what Matt Damon is doing.
In a disease movie, it’s really important that we care about the characters so we can respond emotionally when they die. But there are so many main characters – Matt Damon as a husband whose wife (Gwenyth Paltrow) arrives home from Hong Kong feeling sick, Laurence Fishburne as the head of the CDC, Kate Winslet as a CDC officer sent to Minnesota to organize the quarantine, Marion Cotillard as a WHO epidemiologist sent to Hong Kong to track down the source of the disease, Jude Law as a conspiracy blogger stirring up panic over the disease, and Jennifer Ehle as the CDC doctor trying to find a cure/vaccine – that I couldn’t even remember their names, much less give a crap when they died. Especially since they started dying about five minutes into the movie.
I know, we’ll compensate by making one of them Gwenyth Paltrow, and the other one a cute kid!
They’ve GOT to care about kids!
Of course, it also didn’t help that the acting was so subdued and blank. With each of the characters getting so little screen time, they needed to emote more in order to make an impression. Yet when characters contract the disease, they act less upset than you would if you found out the drug store was going to stop carrying your favorite brand of shampoo. Matt Damon’s wife dies, and all he’s got to say is “what?”
I’d cry or something, but I skipped that day of acting school.
Burns and director Steven Soderburgh also seem to have done no research at all into the protocols for disease response. They try to fool us into thinking they have by giving us a little lesson on R0 (r naught), which is the number of people each person infects. But if they really knew what they were talking about, they would know that a virus that infects and kills in 4 days like the one they invented would die out very quickly because the host wouldn’t have a chance to pass it on to a lot of other people.
I’m going to draw some numbers on the board, and you’re going to look horrified. Okay?
They also have WHO and CDC officials wandering around an area they know is infected with an unknown, highly contagious pathogen WITHOUT GLOVES OR MASKS, which is just ridiculous, considering that full “space suits,” quarantines, and lots and lots of plastic and duct tape is the standard. Haven’t Soderburgh and Burns ever had an Anthrax scare in their town?
Wear a space suit? Nonsense. All I need to keep me from getting sick is my official CDC clipboard.
What really killed the movie for me, though, was the almost total lack of conflict and tension. The potentially contentious decisions that characters make – to test the vaccine on themselves, to kidnap a WHO official, to disobey the CDC’s order to destroy the virus samples – never have any consequences. Things just happen in sequence until the movie is over, like a documentary of a future outbreak, only not as interesting.
I’m a loose cannon biologist on the edge! There’s a lot of potential for complications here, HELLOOOOO!!
Over and over again, Burns would set up a source of tension and then back down before the moment actually became tense. Matt Damon sees looters breaking into the house next door. He calls 911, but the system is backed up. What will he do if they come to his house? How will he protect his daughter? We never know, because they don’t come over. The movie is filled with missed opportunities like this.
We don’t even get a clue what this guy is up to until the very end, and the biggest irony is
that his actions don’t even have much of an effect on anything.
Soderbergh tries to compensate for this lack of story tension by letting the camera linger on surfaces that people have touched, but since we can’t see anything on the surface, the effect is simply “Ooh, a doorhandle. How dramatic.” A House-like CGI zoom-in to see the virus on the surface and it transferring to and ravaging a new host would have helped, but I guess they were shooting for low key. Well, it worked. The movie is so low key that 35 million people died and I didn’t feel anything at all.
Yawn. Shouldn’t they be burning those?
So despite my natural fear of diseases, this movie failed to scare me at all, meaning it will be even less scary to you, since you’re normal. If you want to watch a good disease movie, rent Outbreak or And the Band Played On or The Andromeda Strain. Hell, even Virus was better, and it had Brian Bosworth in it! Just don’t see this movie. It’s terrible.