Contagion, or, Why Bookish Narratives Don’t Make for “Good” Films


Though I usually don’t talk about films, Friday night’s opening of Contagion in theaters got me thinking about narrative again, as it seemed to follow a book’s structure as opposed to a film’s. None of my friends seemed particularly impressed as the credits began to roll, but I felt like it was good, just different. Not at all like what you usually see in a Hollywood movie, being more thematic than direct in its approach to the topic, with disconnected narratives and loose ends. (Note: not-quite spoilers ahead. Some plot points are revealed but it shouldn’t ruin the movie for you.)

Character Pointilism

We’re used to following a single character though his internal or external struggle, rooting for him or her by the end of the conflict. Additional points of view generally compliment the protagonist’s, and villains or supporting characters do just that, making one primary story thread multi-faceted.

The multiple narratives occurring in Contagion were out-and-out disconnected from each other, each living out their separate lives again the backdrop of the epidemic. As others noted, some characters disappeared after mere minutes on the screen, and admittedly the emotional drama was somewhat unplugged by our inability to identify or connect with them with such brief face time. But I feel that also helped us resonate with Matt Damon’s character on another level–the “holy shit she was fine two seconds ago” was palpable for the audience as well.

Kate Winslet’s fate was also met by a relatively muted response, though she allowed us to experience the temporary hospitals and mass graves that we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. In that regard, she felt more like a plot device than a character. The same could be said for the rest, with the exception of Matt Damon, for whom we felt mostly pity.

Loose Ends

I wouldn’t agree with my friend’s comment, but I’ll admit it seemed unfocused. My main complaint was its failure to resolve the numerous plot threads that had diverged from the main storyline. The hearings following Laurence Fishburne’s decisions are left out, and Marion Cotillard’s character’s last moment on screen is running–we can assume to where, but we’re still asking what happens next. It was all very artistic, more like literature than a film, leaving room for interpretation, not unlike the ending of Inception, albeit on a much much smaller scale.

“Well, that was the most pointless thing I’ve seen in a while.”

One major theme they had begun to explore though Jude Law’s blogger was the pharmaceutical/financial interest in the vaccine, or the potential for a bio-weapon, but we never see more than one corporate executive on the screen and the ironic twist left me still craving answers. When the virus was finally cultured in a lab, the characters talked about how this might be exploited, but nothing ever came of it. Later, its phylogeny “changed” to that of HIV/AIDS, and for a moment we’re all panicking because the vaccine might end up useless after all, but they deploy MEV-1 just fine soon thereafter. Why was the scene even included in the movie? I feel like I need another watch-through to get everything to come together.

Plot, Pacing, and Gaming

The Freytag pyramid for the movie was certainly front-heavy, whereas films will typically push the climax until the end. Things seemed underdeveloped, with not enough time devoted to the themes (see above) and characters that remained flat through the end. No epiphanies, no dynamic changes. The complexity befitting a novel (or film) seemed absent.

“It watched more like a novella.”

I was reminded of the common tendency for role-playing games to start strong and finish weak. Usually a gamemaster will meticulously plan out an earth-shattering inciting conflict (or hook), and everything peters out from there as the PC’s gradually complete more and more objectives to the “active” quest or are defeated along the way. (Some players failed their fort save in the movie, I guess.) As I mentioned earlier, everything seemed to spiral out without containment, a feature very typical of sandbox-style campaigns. This plot twist and that NPC complicate things until eventually everyone grows tired of it all and seems vaguely satisfied with the way things turned out.

No Summer Blockbusters Here

Ultimately, and what I feel most viewers will fail to grasp, is that this was not a horror movie but a sociological commentary: the term “docudrama” seems to fit the bill. It was tragic in that nobody had malicious intent, but they all played a role as the “antagonists” by fostering the deteriorating situation with their individual agendas. People are fallible and self-interested primarily, but there is still room for faint glimmers of good.

My friend joked that “the moral of the story is that if you cheat on your husband you could contract super-AIDS and your brain will melt.” Really it explores panic, riots, looting, and exploitation in times of emergency. Like Three-Mile Island, it took the human element to turn the outbreak into a full-on disaster. That’s an interesting topic, to me. It’s the way it was structured (or written, perhaps), that may fail to resonate with viewers–not necessarily the message.

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