Disaster and horror movies have always been studied for their possible subtexts by devotees, perhaps in an attempt to make up for the fact that their beloved films have never been treated altogether seriously by critics and mainstream film-makers craving respectability. It’s a way of bestowing some meaning on them other than their ability to scare, revolt or inspire a frisson at the sight of people being burned alive, drowned or dismembered. This kind of analysis certainly leads to some silly claims, but generally there is something to the notion that they reflect public anxieties and fears in any given era.
In the Fifties, with the new threat of nuclear oblivion looming, the screen was thick with mutant insects, giant spiders and reawakened sea monsters wreaking havoc, usually on New York City. The epic disaster movies of the Seventies, such as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, depicted the consequences of corruption and greed among the wealthy and powerful of the establishment, whether they were the builders of skyscrapers or the owners of ocean liners. Such films in that paranoid, newly cynical decade were essentially sticking it to The Man. And then external threats gave way to the evil coming from within us: the demonic possession of The Exorcist, the genetic mutations of the body caused by The Thing, the creature bursting out of John Hurt’s chest in Alien. We ourselves were possibly the monsters now, although neither Reagan nor Thatcher could have had that in mind when they extolled individual responsibility.
Recently that genuinely all-American monster, the zombie, has been all over TV and cinema, sometimes lurching, arms out-stretched, sometimes rabid and possessed of maniacal energy. The reasons for zombie infestations are rarely spelt out; occasionally we’re told it’s a virus, or a cure for cancer that’s gone seriously wrong, but mostly we’re simply plonked down in the middle of the action, on the side of a motley group of survivors and with no end in sight. Our neighbours, acquaintances and fellow mall-dwellers have turned the ordinary suburban setting into a hell on earth, in which the best you can hope for is possession of a cupboard of tinned supplies and an AK-47.
Such films may be reflecting the current sense of creeping social breakdown, in which all traditional structure and means of keeping order are rendered useless, and our survival on a day-to-day basis is strictly down to us. Steven Soderbergh’s new film Contagion is not a zombie movie — nobody comes back from the dead — but it speaks to the same fears, the same sense of helplessness in the face of an enemy which is all around us but appears to have come out of nowhere. Here, it is an unknown virus which we see passed from one to another, via a bowl of nuts on a bar, a credit card, a cough, crossing continents and causing Gwyneth Paltrow to foam at the mouth within the first 15 minutes or so.
Soderbergh’s take on the disaster movie is to make it more into a thriller, similar in form to his award-winning Traffic about the drug trade, with an almost documentary style — you learn quite a lot here in the way of statistics and variables relating to deadly outbreaks. This, and the studied underplaying by the main characters, has the effect of making it all seem utterly plausible, even inevitable. Starting on Day Two of the outbreak — Day One is saved right until the end — the ferociously fast progress of the virus is tracked with a sense of realism and logic which, paradoxically, leaves you asking why, if it’s really this straightforward and easy for humanity to be brought to virtual extinction, it doesn’t happen more often.
I was certainly carried along by the tightness of the story. There are no gaping holes in the plot that I could see, none of the unlikely coincidences or superhuman feats of daring you see in your traditional bogstandard disaster movie. And the disparate but interconnecting characters allow for all sorts of interesting bases to be covered — the presence, for example, of a powerful blogger (Jude Law), full of conspiracy theories, allows the conflict between new and old media to be explored (a story line which could have made a whole movie by itself).
But there’s a worthiness to this film, a sense of an underlying determination not to be sensational, which makes it finally disappointing. I rather like spectacle in my Armageddon, or at least in my burning buildings, and this was all rather pared down. Certainly we see scenes of crowds going crazy and looting, but it’s all kept somewhat local and incidental. Some big dramatics, some mass hysteria, wouldn’t have gone amiss. Instead, the raft of stars whom Soderbergh managed to sign up are given lots of close-ups and chances to do Serious Work. Along with Paltrow and Law, there is Kate Winslet as an uptight epidemiologist, Laurence Fishburne as her boss, Marion Cotillard as a UN official and a brooding Matt Damon as Paltrow’s soon-to-be-ex-husband. The presence of Damon is key here: one simply can’t imagine an actor who takes himself as seriously as Damon ever consenting to be in something so beneath him as, say, The Towering Inferno. It would have to be more than that — the movie would have to be saying something.
So he might be disappointed that Contagion walks the walk very well, but ultimately doesn’t talk the talk. It ends with an explanation which is niftily put together but which is anti-climatic as a payoff. In the dramatic void I found myself pondering peripheral issues instead, such as the grave folly of mass global travel on demand in an age of lethal viruses. Thank goodness at least for subtext.