Back in the 70s (as I seem to have a habit of saying) there was a brilliant science fiction drama series called Survivors, concerning a world where 99 per cent of the population had been wiped out by an airborne virus. You may have caught the recent re-make which was all-right-I-suppose but not a surgical patch on the original for out-and-out bleakness. The title sequence of the original series alone is one of the most terrifying things ever seen on television: a montage of short shots of a Chinese scientist lifting and then dropping an ominous looking beaker of liquid before catching various aircraft and getting passport stamps from every major city on Earth, over which a bombastic, authoritative-sounding, current affairs style theme tune plays. You should YouTube it straight away if you don’t know it.
Compared to Survivors the new film Contagion, which plays out a very similar scenario, is somewhat lighter on the shock value and consequently a lot less gripping. This is for the main part admirably sober and well-researched, with director Steven Soderbergh seemingly going out of his way to avoid melodrama and tension-filled climaxes. The most out-and-out dramatic scene comes only about ten minutes in, when Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, who has seemingly come down with a bug she picked up in Hong Kong, is rushed to hospital after collapsing at home and shortly after dies (this isn’t really a spoiler, it’s in the trailer). Henceforth, individual deaths are not dwelt on and the movie spends its time on the doctors and scientists who are struggling to replicate the virus and come up with a vaccine, the effects on society as people start dying in their millions, and the establishment’s efforts to combat a troublesome blogger (Jude Law) who claims that an effective antidote already exists but is being suppressed for political reasons. There are a number of plot strands, the action is split between the USA and South-East Asia, and an impressive roster of big name stars on display: Laurence Fishbourne, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard. The script is intelligent, the direction is restrained and nothing really feels clunky or over-contrived.
Despite all this, I found the film curiously uninvolving. This is partly because it seems to be neither one thing or another – if you’re going to be sober and unsensational, then use a less recognisable cast, don’t be so meticulous with your compositions and colour schemes and above all, don’t lay in doomy-sounding music to underline your point that things are VERY SERIOUS. And it’s partly because the various narrative threads don’t really go anywhere that interesting. It’s all as credible as a Hollywood film is ever going to be on this kind of subject, but I’d have liked a bit of government conspiracy, or massive medical cock-up, or actual collapse into anarchy. I mean, I would probably be complaining that it just wasn’t realistic if I’d been presented with some cartoony bad guys or cannibalistic tribes but it might stopped Contagion being just a little bit dull and worthy.