Soderbergh Experiment #22: Contagion

How many good films can Steven Soderbergh churn out before he retires? Is he still planning on retiring? I can’t answer these questions. However I can tell you that Soderbergh, who dips his hand in just about any genre he can, is one of our generation’s best, with Contagion giving me further evidence to present that case.

Throughout his whole career, Soderbergh has given change and experimentation a chance. Which might be why he is so keen on “retiring” and putting his brain to new artistic tests. In the last few years Soderbergh has done a lot: he’s used porn star Sasha Grey as a leading actress, turned a female UFC fighter into an action star, made a daunting and masterful two-part biopic about Che Guevara and returned to a favorite subject of his – Spalding Gray – to document his life.

While it appears that the work never seems to stop for Soderbergh, none of those films, or any of his films, were rush jobs. One of his latest attempts at distorting common film notions is Contagion, a look at how disease travels and what a worldwide outbreak would mean for us all. Assembling a cast of stars (Laurence Fishburn, Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Kate Winslet), Soderbergh has a lot of moving parts and puts a lot of ideas into motion in just under two hours.

What works so well in Contagion is its loose narrative. This isn’t a typical way to tell a story. In fact, there’s not much of a story being told, but more so an example of a world breaking down because of the way a virus has spread. Sure, there are important moments for each characters – terrible sadness, death, curiosity and a dash of humanity – but none of it matters more than the bigger picture: how did this virus start, how did it spread and what can be done to stop it. The death of Paltrow’s character Beth Emhoff in the film’s first 10 minutes and its impact on her husband (Damon, who plays Mitch Emhoff) doesn’t matter as much as what the world does to brace for the outbreak. In fact, some of the top-billed actors don’t even interact in the film. They’re in totally different worlds of their own inside one trembling, panicked world. It’s rather unique and fascinating to observe how Soderbergh took advantage of his star power.

Soderbergh presents us with chilling moments galore and its all heightened by a level of plausibility that exists because of how simple things are kept. But what’s more important is how much time the narrative goes through. Beginning on day two, the film takes laps through time, bringing us through the stages of an outbreak: panic, fear, research, trials, errors and calm, which is then followed by more fear. The film doesn’t leave us knowing what happened to certain characters, and it doesn’t have to. That’s not the point. Contagion is at times nothing more than a glossy, star-filled public service announcement about how you should wash your hands more often and stop touching your stupid face.

But that idea that Contagion is weak in certain areas is fully transcended by just how sharp Soderbergh is. The film is thrilling, chilling and other related -ing words.  Good performances by the entire cast help propel the film into another area, while the pulsating score combined with the invading fear of germs and death obviously keep you hooked.

Soderbergh will move on to release a few more films in 2012 and 2013. And surprise, there’s more experiments! First he will try to change Channing Tatum’s image – Tatum will star as a male stripper in Magic Mike this June. Then he teams back up with Scott Z. Burns – who wrote Contagion‘s screenplay – for The Side Effects, a psychological thriller starring, once again, Tatum and recent newly-christened star Rooney Mara.

It’s not a secret that almost every Soderbergh film is a challenging watch. He expects more out of his audience than most filmmakers and shows it. If you’re curious, go back to his most creative film Schizopolis and take that ride. He creates his own language and realities for parts of that experience.

With a number of other classics in his pocket (TrafficSex, Lies and Videotape) and a blockbuster series (Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13) it seems fitting that Soderbergh will try everything he can before he’s too old to think. Here’s to him experimenting forever and keeping us thinking too.

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