MEV-1 vs. the World
If I were to pitch two stakes at each of the furthest ends my cinematic taste reaches, one would represent the prosaic dramatization of everyday human nature and the other would mark sensuous escape into the fantastic. Or, I look to either be deeply moved or taken for a fun ride; yet, I rarely expect to find a movie that delivers both at once.
Contagion (2011, Steven Soderbergh) shall be categorized as a fun ride (even though there's nothing fun about a story involving a deadly virus), filled with thrills, that moves along at an assuredly purposeful pace right up until its 100 minute running time expires. And then it's over. The film is so compact and self contained (big pun intended) that you just need to sit back and let it happen to you--the hallmark of all genre films?
While this film may lack a dramatic gravitas that stays with the viewer, its formal achievements are so efficient that this becomes a case of style serving as substance. I am reminded of opening a new toy as a kid and the delight of escaping into a fantastic adventure, right out of the box--that's what watching Contagion feels like.
Fist, there's the music. Cliff Martinez's score surprised the heck out of me. Watching the movie, it was audacious at first. To see the montages concurrently launched with this 80s new wave inspired power synth driving and unifying them cracked me up--but they work. It's difficult for me to describe the affinity I feel for kitschy B movie sci-fi aesthetics, but I've always enjoyed the way space helmets and chemistry sets make me think of cutesy beeps and whirring sf/x. And one Mr. John Carpenter was responsible for the watershed synth score he composed for Halloween (1978, Carpenter), which borrowed from Italian giallo scores from bands like Goblin, influencing generic conventions for decades to follow. But back to Cliff Martinez. The synthesizers aren't something I'm qualified or capable of describing in any significant way, however, the guy goes into some funky Moog solos that rock.
The counterpart to the vibrant, modern scoring of Contagion is Soderbergh's cinematography (Peter Andrews is a pseudonym Soderbergh has used since Traffic). This film's palette strikes me as predominately green and yellow and I think it's because this movie is about people getting very sick and dying from a highly contagious virus. Soderbergh shot this on a RED, so I'm guessing he likely photographed with a color temperature that didn't overly correct for the fluorescent, sodium vapor, metal halide lamps, or even daylight and tungsten fixtures--but these colors also could have been manipulated in post. The later Gwyneth Paltrow scenes make heavy use of a tilt shift in the lens. The tilt shift is a special attachment that allows the lens to shift in the housing of the barrel, but what its effect is turns out to be a soft, blurry distortion surrounding the clearly focused center of the frame (this movie uses it a lot, but I can only think of the regatta in The Social Network (2010, David Fincher) for a comparable reference.)
Somewhat related to the cinematography, Soderbergh's blocking is also notable in that he is increasingly in the habit of composing with out of focus objects in the foreground, which I enjoy. He must be having fun these days. His work is vibrant, youthful and slick.
The structure of the screenplay is what allows for this formal excursion to preserve its focus though. With a simple conflict: deadly MEV-1 outbreak as antagonist vs. Earth as protagonist, the script is composed as a day-by-day account, and to me, cohesively shows everything I wanted to see in the world of this story.
Many will comment about the all-star ensemble, but I'll just say I like Demetri Martin as a CFC scientist who looks a little like an indy nerd hipster and Marion Cotillard is too gorgeous for me to forget who she really is and imagine she's an epidemiologist--she's just so classically glamorous.
There are at least two scenes I'd noticed where two characters from opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum cross paths. There's the janitor (John Hawkes) who seems overly entitled in his demands from the high ranking CDC Dr. (Laurnce Fishburne) and the two passersby the Gwyneth Paltrow character infects: the Ukrainian fashion model and the Chinese busboy. At first I thought this was heavy handed, but then I decided that Soderbergh may be preserving genre conventions from 70s disaster pics where the ensemble typically brought together such disparate figures. I also should bring up Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) as a prototype, and if there're earlier examples in film, I cannot think of them at the moment.
A final though I had concerns the Ukrainian model. I am embarrassed to admit that I've never considered myself qualified to discuss politics and I might not even have a clear grasp on what exactly the word means always, under exceptional contexts. But to me, I think the filmmakers are making a subtle comment about a news item I recall reading about, which reported on the potential regulation of model's BMIs before being allowed to take to the runway. Of the three models, two were eastern European, and one, Snejana Onopka is Ukrainian. So, I think the fact that she is the first character to die, very quickly after being contaminated, may hint that her immune system was the weakest due to her dangerously low BMI. Of course, I admit, this may be an absurd speculation. But, then again.
And there's a subtle narrative point that may be stretched to read an eco-friendly message therein. The film ends with a shot of a bulldozer razing a wild bat habitat, and that bulldozer has an AIMM Alderson placard. AIMM Alderson is the company the Gwyneth Paltrow character was a global sales rep for and the Japanese businessman in the casino takes AIMM Alderson documents on the plane back to Japan with him, inferring that their deal somehow precipitated the entire outbreak. Again, if these are political messages, I'm still not sure. But that's how it looks.
The ending is a simple joy of narrative convention. After allowing yourself to be engrossed in a narrative, paying attention and actively engaging with it, there is often the tendency to show the beginning at the very end. The biggest example may be the entire conception of Lucas's prequel trilogy, ending with Anakin putting on the Darth Vader costume; there're plenty of detractors, Patton Oswalt being one of the funnier. But in Contagion, I still can get a big kick out of seeing the beginning as an epilogue. And screenwriters tend to aim for the goal of "show don't tell," so the Contagion ending can serve as proof of what happens when it's done right.