I don’t normally do film reviews here because I figure who needs yet another person on the internet telling you whether they liked a film or not. But occasionally I’ll talk about a film I saw that did something interesting – either good or bad – in the writing.
I finally saw Contagion (written by Scott Z. Burns) last night and thought it tried to do some very unusual things with its narrative. To get the review part out of the way, I kinda liked the movie, but found it frustrating.
What’s interesting about the approach is that rather than telling a character focused story, the movie tries to tell the story of what would happen to the world if a new, fast spreading, high mortality virus appeared in the human population. It looks at the event from many angles – the CDC, World Health Organization, journalists, government, and a handful of normal citizens. This is the story of humanity vs. a virus.
There is an emotional, single-character story line that provides a loose skeleton for the structure. This is the story of Mitch, played by Matt Damon, a normal person dealing with the death of his wife, the first American victim, and then trying to survive with his daughter as the disease slowly destroys the fabric of society.
This story is done well, and we are moved by Mitch’s loss and experiences. It’s a good choice, because he’s an ordinary guy, presumably similar to a lot of the audience. But the movie doesn’t survive on his story – though we check in with Mitch regularly, he’s in less than a quarter of the scenes. Rather, it’s humanity’s response to the disease that gives the story its structure from our first encounter with the virus to the teetering of civilization to the eventual discovery of a cure.
It seems we’re not meant to engage the movie emotionally so much, but intellectually. Which works fine, actually, as long as the intellectual questions raised are compelling enough. And the ideas about power and science and the value of the individual, not to mention human vulnerability and the tenuous hold we all have on life, are pretty compelling.
In addition to Mitch’s storyline, there is one other way the film tries to engage our emotions. We are given several significant characters cast with stars. The filmmakers cleverly kill the first one introduced – Beth, played by Gwyneth Paltrow – right off the bat. This is a signal that nobody is safe. We can’t assume that all the movie stars are going to get out of this alive. This creates some tension for the audience.
But as an audience we’ve seen this trick before, and since it happens so early, we might quickly become immune to its effect. “Oh, they stunt-cast Gwyneth Paltrow for shock value,” we think, “how clever.” Then we feel safe that nobody else played by a famous person will die. So in the middle of the movie they do it again – Kate Winslet’s Dr. Erin Mears from the CDC dies. Now we really don’t know what might happen. And since we like these stars (presumably) and most of their characters are pretty heroic, we have tension over the outcome.
So Mitch’s storyline and the fate of our heroic movie star characters gets us to invest emotionally in the film just enough for us to care about the plot. But the structure is more about the progress of humanity facing this horrific disease. It’s a script structured around a concept. Does it work?
Partly. The broad scope is interesting, but it feels crammed into a two-hour movie. As a miniseries it might have been much more successful. Given the limited amount of time available for each aspect of the story, most of the storylines feel undercooked.
For example, the story about a World Health Organization worker kidnapped in Hong Kong vanishes for the middle of the movie. When she reappears, it’s almost jarring – we’d forgotten about her. That story could have been interesting if fully developed, but it would have required a lot more screen time. Better, I think, would have been to cut it out entirely and devote more time to the political issues, another area that seemed underdeveloped.
But now I’m more just angling for the parts of the story I find most interesting. The real issue here is that the narrative is spread so thin, none of the stories ends up fully realized. A movie just based on the CDC’s response to the disease, for example, might not have been as ambitious but could have been more successful.
Would it be possible to do a broad, conceptual structure more successfully? I think so. Contagion doesn’t wander or feel boring. Interestingly, it doesn’t feel episodic because all the stories relate to the overall structural tension of whether humanity can overcome this virus. But perhaps this particular issue just has too big of a scope for a two-hour movie.
In any case, I’ll still give them a big cheer for ambition.