I’m a sucker for the post-apocalyptic, the thriller, the commentary on society, and gorgeous cinematography. When I saw the first couple of trailers for Contagion I thought to myself that it looked corny, if not a bit enjoyable. When I left the theater tonight after seeing it, I was giving pause and wondering if anything outside of Tree of Life this year had gripped my brain-piece as hard.
The premise behind Contagion is at first glance the sort of thriller killer virus shit that is fun for everyone to watch. We’re human, we love watching theorized versions of our society wiped out by famine, flood, fire, or monkey-bitey viruses. There’s a reason that Outbreak both scared the shit and entertained the Christ out of me as a child. Our demise is entertaining to watch. What isn’t apparent from the trailers (or at least wasn’t to me, my skull fattened on high-fructose corn syrup and NaCL) is that the entire virus as a conceit serves more to propel the movie into a character study of our glorious crumbling Western civilization. But you say there are portions on Hong Kong! I insist. Our Western population.
I couldn’t help but remark at the fitting nature of the film dropping near the tenth anniversary of 9/11, since the decimation wrought by the virus in the flick is much in concert with the sort of behavior we have all willed up and vomited out since that tragedy some 30,000+ days ago. Out of the spreading of the virus comes the contagions that underpin the fucking shit out of the flick, and none of them are a killing strand of proteins.
Fear, panic, greed. Self-preservation. These are the interesting viruses that spread throughout the flick, motivating characters and nameless mobs throughout the scenes. Looting, rioting. Characters granting preferential treatment to loved ones in a desperate desire to save those close to them. The virus itself is just a proxy for the movie to show us our seamy underbelly. It isn’t anything that the average liberal sipping a latte at Starbucks can’t come up with from the safety of their Macbook Pro.
But it’s still hauntingly entertaining to watch in motion.
The entire movie is gorgeous. In stark contrast to the rampaging viruses throughout the movie’s scenes, there is a humming sterility to every framing. The movie is centered on the unfurling of society, the unrestrained growth of panic and virus and epidemic. But the way the scenes are framed are cold for the most part, antiseptic. For the majority of the movie, the cameras remain stationary. Every scene is boxed in. Confining. Claustrophobic. There is no escaping from the angles of the enframed images, the viewer is only spared when there’s a cut to another angle, or a different location. There’s a sexy sleekness to this enforced claustrophia. The movie brims with a haunting vibe, the perfectly chosen camera angles at once enticing and encasing the viewer. It was a box that I was happily shoved into for nearly two hours.
I dug the shit out of the combination of the perpetuating panic and the calmness of the scenes. It builds up a tension that never exploded. A fear that never rolls over into full on hysteria. It seduces you into feeling the despair without hammering you into the ground with it. In much the same way, the narrative arch plays with a dedramaization of deaths and maladies so that the entire experience has an ambience as opposed to a guttural feeling to it.
What does Contagion suggest? Relatively little. The motif of fear being more powerful than actual atrocities is nothing new. The movie handles it in both subtle and ham-fisted manners, with suggestions throughout the movie via its themes and a couple of moments where the concept is machine-gunned into the audience’s temples through bits of dialogue. The movie is insightful in the sense that it offers up another look at these themes, though as with the deaths and the calamities in the movies it seems more dead set on allowing the viewer to crumple together their own conclusion that mainline one into your arteries. It is when Contagion takes a step into view that the movie stumbles. The aforementioned dialogue, a corny moment in the ending that gives unneeded resolution.
Silencio, Contagion! Let us decide. Let us sit with it. That’s when you work best. I loved Contagion. It worked with a lot of familiar themes, themes that I enjoy. What made it so fucking fantastic to me was the quiet and looming manner in which it offered up these tropes. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, or ruminate or suggest something brilliant; it instead helps up a mirror to our own panache for hysteria. A panache that seems ever the more present, ever the more spreading.
Like a virus!
LOL, get it?