Friday, 28 October 2011

Film Review - Contagion

tl;dr Well made and intense, this is a more than competent disaster flick.

Feeling a bit poorly? Stuck as a scene in worldwide montages? Electronic music pulsing in your head, with an understated intensity? Sounds like you're contagious. Not to worry, for a large cast of characters across America, and even in China, are working hard to find some sort of resolution. This a large experience in every sense, covering almost half a year, with a large cast of characters and a disease that is rampaging across most of the world.

Yet Contagion is also a movie of the small details. It's terrifically shot, and the emphasis on small details is what makes the experience so powerful a one. There's a big emphasis on the way infections spread from small touches or shared air. Melodrama is mostly avoided by letting us react to situations, rather than showing the characters reacting. The scenes of death and suffering and chaos are fairly minimal. By avoiding gratuity, a real weight is brought to proceedings.

The characterisation is all the better for being all the briefer. With a central conflict for all of them to deal with, characters all have an arc to go through and the fact that the movie never overplays it's hand is how it keeps such a large cast well balanced. It knows how to be impactful with little, and avoids the temptation to go for something rather more blatant or cliche or even a bit safer.

It also asks questions without hammering them in. The subplot in China very quickly could have turned overwhelming and evoked a sense of xenophobia. Instead, there's a very potent question asked about priviledge in the face of tragedy, and how help is distributed.

It's not a perfect movie. I found that it was a movie I could appreciate, but all of this heaviness and anxxiety kept me from every really having any fun. It stressed me out, and as well made and affecting as the movie was, I never really found it an experience I enjoyed. That's not to say all films should be fluffy escapism, but rather that the disaster genre holds little for me, personally, to enjoy.

This film is never really gonna surprise or stretch you, and I feel it's greatest weakness actually lies with the characters it chooses to develop the most. Whilst the family who lose the first American casualty is a story that tries to give us a personal connection to the tragedy, as we see a man trying to cope with the loss of his son and wife and the knowledge his wife was having an affair and his daughter who has to cope with a lost brother, mother and imposed isolation. It's well enough done, but feels out of place in the movie and something of a betrayal of the subtlety that had been running through the piece. Plus, it's emotional messiness gives us not much real resolution and - once again this is probably more to do with me - is just a kind of downer throughout.

If you fancy it, it's worth a look. If you like disaster movie, definitely see it. Not one I really enjoyed though.

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