21 October 2011

CONTAGION (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2011, US/UAE)

Contagion aims to make us anxious about our position in the world. Whereas other Hollywood films in which a deadly virus threatens to bring about a sensationalist media induced apocalypse, Soderbergh’s dystopian science fiction thriller attempts to take a global geographic approach to the conventional what if? scenario. The Underneath, Soderbergh’s first and possibly best attempt at American neo noir, saw an acceleration in terms of aesthetics. Not that he dumped his American indie credentials but with films like The Underneath, a new interest in narrative subjectivity also opened up a new space in terms of film editing. The elliptical fragmentation of time and space has become a virtual trademark of Soderbergh’s glossiest films. Non-linearity was never really an innovation but has been around since the birth of film but Soderbergh repeatedly proves that non-linear narrative storytelling can be equally compelling and satisfying for audiences than traditional approaches. David Fincher, a director often bracketed in the same category as Soderbergh, could easily have directed Contagion. Although these two auteurs may be poles apart in terms of thematic interests, a mirrored embrace of new technology particularly the digitisation of film brings together their visual sensibilities. Fincher is slowly catching up to Soderbergh but films like Fight Club and The Social Network suggests Fincher’s seems more interested in the darker elements of American culture. To say Soderbergh is more of a European style filmmaker might be an overstatement but films such as Kafka, Che and The Good German point to Soderbergh’s capacity to become global. In other words, Soderbergh has managed to broaden out his authorial standing by also looking at American culture and society from an outside perspective. The critical distancing is far more acute in the films of Soderbergh than many other American directors. Contagion is made up of an impressive ensemble cast and Soderbergh uses such A list stars (Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow) to act as a hook for audiences. Many of Soderbergh’s flawed films (Kafka comes to mind) are in a way some of his best too because they reveal a disinterest with the mechanics of storytelling and seem more focused on exploring characterisation, mood, visual style and the technical aspects of film making. Contagion is a flawed film. In the final third, the film disintegrates and loses narrative momentum. Soderbergh opens promisingly with the first thirty minutes amounting to some superb storytelling but as more characters are introduced, the central premise becomes diluted. The ideological slant on the greedy and corrupt practices of the Pharmaceutical industry could have done with more clarity and screen time but the film stops shorting of heading into the risky commercial territory of the political thriller. Much more disappointing is the ending, which reconstitutes the family unit in the context of American suburbia but does in a way that is sentimental and a little incongruous.

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