Friday, September 16, 2011

What I Saw: Contagion (84th Oscar Race)

What I Saw: Contagion (84th Oscar Race)

What I Saw: Contagion.

Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion explores what might happen if a new and deadly virus were to appear. The most exciting aspect of the film is watching the virus spread, and watching the humans scramble to respond to it. Careful film editing and unique point of view cinematography make you feel as if you can actually see those microscopic cells jumping from person to person, and from doorknob to coffee cup.

This film brilliantly contrasts the simple and rapid contagiousness of the disease with the slow and cumbersome human response. The virus only has to be strong enough to get through our immune systems, but our battle requires a detour through the challenges of governmental bureaucracies, medical jargon, scientific ignorance, inter-racial prejudices, corporate greed, family loyalties and conspiracy theories that may turn out to be correct. The film highlights this contrast by showing the disease on the move, while exploring the human challenges through (at times tedious) exposition.

I’ll admit that the end of the film still leaves me perplexed. [NOTE: SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW ABOUT THE END.]  Unlike most diseases that haunt us for generations, the film made the virus so powerful that the only possible endings were human extinction or finding a miracle cure within months of the first case. In choosing the latter, my initial reaction was that the film quickly shifted focus, suddenly humanizing the characters (and at times turning them into saints) in a way that seemed manipulative to me. But upon further reflection, I have decided that there is some truth in this also. Once a crisis is averted, people tend to return to their normal lives, and individual acts of kindness become more likely after the stakes have been lowered. Even the very last shots, which were surely paid for by the American agricultural industry, seek to assure the audience that a disease could only arise in a distant land, never from here, and that it is safe to return to our normal lives.

Oscar Chances:

It is easy to understand why this film was in the early Oscar conversation.  It has Steven Soderbergh as the director, deals with international issues and has an all-star cast. However, I think that the disappointing ending, along with the early release date, will hurt the film’s chances come nomination morning.

Sound Mixing (currently ranked 5, but will drop in next set of predictions)
Film Editing: Stephen Mirrione (currently ranked 6, likely to drop some in my next set of predictions, but still the best chance for a nomination from this film.)
Original Score: Cliff Martinez (currently ranked 8, likely to drop in my next set of predictions, but still a possibility.)
Original Screenplay: Scott Z. Burns (currently ranked 8, still a possibility)
Supporting Actor: Laurence Fishburne (currently ranked 10, and will probably be listed as Lead in my next set of predictions)
Best Director: Steven Soderbergh (currently ranked 11, likely to drop in my next predictions)
Sound Editing (currently ranked 11, but will drop in next set of predictions)
Best Picture (currently ranked 15, likely to drop in my next predictions)
Supporting Actor: Jude Law (currently ranked 15)
Visual Effects (currently ranked 15, will drop significantly in next set of predictions)
Makeup (currently ranked 18, likely to drop in next predictions)
Lead Actor: Matt Damon (currently ranked 23, and will probably be moved to supporting in my next set of predictions)
Cinematography: Peter Andres (currently ranked 23)
Art Direction: Howard Cummings and Cindy Carr (currently ranked 33)
Supporting Actress: Kate Winslet (currently ranked 25)
Supporting Actress: Sanaa Lathan (currently ranked 40)
Supporting Actress: Marion Cotillard (currently ranked 46)
Original Song: Cliff Martinez (currently ranked 44, likely to drop as I don’t remember any songs)
Costume Design (currently ranked 47, likely to drop off the next set of predictions)
Supporting Actress: Gwyneth Paltrow (currently unranked, her best acting was already seen in the trailer, and is sure to become a camp favorite)

This film also has a large Asian supporting cast, including a memorable scene from Tien You Chui, and a significant role by Chin Han. Unfortunately, the whole tenor of the film tells us we’re supposed to be thinking primarily about the Americans, and Asia is relegated to the place where the disease is first encountered, but last to be cured.

My Lamb Score: 3 ½ out of 5 Lambs. The bulk of the film could be listed higher, but it loses points for its ending (and for making fun of bloggers!)  
What is a lamb score? Click HERE to learn more.
Read more of my reviews HERE.


  1. Contagion becomes a battle between what it is and what it could have been. It satisfies just enough to warrant its existence while frustrating one with its potential. Nice review my man!

  2. Great review and I completely agree that film editing is its best bet at the Oscars.

    I have a question, I only thought of this when I noticed someone had a different take on it than I did a few days ago: Do you think Jude Law's character knowingly gave false information about that drug in order to make money off of it? More specifically do you think he was genuinely shocked when the government agents told him he had antibodies to the virus? because I was listening to the slashfilmcast and those guys thought he was lying to the agents...I personally thought they were wrong but I could have missed something during my viewing

  3. I have updated my September Oscar predix:

  4. Thank you Ryan.

    I haven't thought too much about Jude Law's predicament, given the number of story lines to follow. But since I am a blogger who actually lives in San Francisco, I found him very believable. There's a whole different mindset out here sometimes, so my take is that he was not intentionally lying. It's possible that he was always immune, but came down with a different sickness that he assumed was the plague, and that this different illness was actually cured by his holistic treatment.

    But I think it is more likely Law's expression at the end wasn't surprise, but rather continued disbelief. If you believe, as Law's character does, that the government and the pharmaceutical companies lie about everything, why suddenly believe them at the end? My guess is that he was legitimately sick, that his cure did work (at least for him), and that the powers that be are still involved in a cover-up of this fact, in order to sell the more expensive "cures".

  5. @ lime_vortep. Cool! Checking them out now. I'm going to hold off on mine until Toronto has officially finished, in case there are any last minute surprises, but will then be back on track with some new ones.

    Still wondering whether Viola Davis and Keira Knightley will go lead or supporting. (I've heard rumors both ways.) And the one person that I didn't see on your list that I'm still holding out hope for is Michelle Yeoh for The Lady.

    Great updates!