Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Weekend's Films

Isn't it just the way: you go weeks without seeing the inside of a movie theater and then two movies you want to see come out on the same weekend.  That timing proved to be fortuitous, though, as the two films have in common a preoccupation with our world and our present moment, though one of them filters that concern through science fiction while the other makes a virtue out of being mimetic.  Only one of these approaches works, and it wasn't the one I was expecting.
  • Contagion - Steven Soderbergh's latest is a smart, effective, utterly engrossing movie that gets a lot of things right, but nevertheless I have trouble calling it a good film.  To get to the good stuff first, at its most basic level the film is gratifying simply for the things that it isn't.  There's very little hysteria here as a new strain of flu spreads quickly and lethally all over the planet, and very little emphasis on emotional dramas as a window on the epidemic--though the film features star-crossed lovers, crumbling marriages, and strained parent-child relationships, none of these are the point of the story, and at no point is it suggested that they, and not the millions of people dying, are the real tragedy.  Instead, Contagion focuses on professionals--World Health Organization officials, CDC researchers and administrators, DHS agents and military officers--as they matter-of-factly go about their jobs trying to identify the virus, figure out where it came from, and create a vaccine.  Nor does the film revel in the breakdown of civilization and its niceties--in fact, if anything, Contagion's version of social breakdown in the wake of an epidemic is a little too nice.  Matt Damon's character, whose wife and stepson are among the virus's earliest victims, spends the second half of the film trying and repeatedly failing to get food, but he and his daughter never look hungry or disheveled, and the film also severely downplays the economic consequences of the virus, as businesses, schools, factories, and international travel are shut down for fear of infection.  In contrast, what Contagion does stress are mostly acts of individual heroism and self-sacrifice--from Jennifer Ehle's epidemiologist character testing her vaccine on herself to prove that it works without waiting for approval for human trials, to Damon helping a woman who has been given MREs fight off looters even though he has no food.  Which is not to say that Contagion is triumphant or that its characters are too good to be true--Lawrence Fishburne's staunch CDC director, for example, shows his feet of clay when he alerts his girlfriend about an upcoming quarantine of her state--but more that it is a film about professionals, who try to put the responsibility that comes with their job ahead of their own interests.  Paradoxically, Contagion's muted tone, its refusal to surrender to full-on tragedy, actually intensify our awareness, and terrified reactions to, its events.  There's no comforting buffer of genre storytelling to stress that this is fiction.  The plot and characters behave in so believable a fashion that one can't escape the realization that this could and might happen to us.  There's a compelling argument for reading Contagion as a horror film, and probably one of the scariest I've ever seen.

    At the same time, that believability leaves Contagion feeling story-less.  What, in the end, is the film about?  Is its intended effect really nothing more than that supremely terrifying, because so plausible, sense of horror, or is the film trying to say something more?  A late scene in which Fishburne's character explains the origin of the custom of shaking hands (it shows that you're not carrying concealed weapons) suggests that Contagion is a film about human connection as a double-edged sword--in the reality imposed by the virus, contact with other people can end your life, but without that contact, is life worth living?  The opening scenes stress this dilemma by focusing on mundane, sometimes affectionate actions--handing your credit card over to pay a bar tab, hugging your child, helping a stranger when they collapse in the street--and imbuing them with a sense of menace as each one carries the virus to another unsuspecting victim.  This is even further suggested when it is revealed that Damon's wife, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), the virus's first human carrier, infected so many people and sent the virus to so many corners of the world because she was a warm, gregarious person.  In flashbacks to her last night on a business trip, spent partying at a casino in Macau, we see her putting her arm around a Japanese businessman who has given her gambling tips, gratefully pressing the hand of a Ukranian model who noticed that Beth had dropped her cell phone.  On her way home, she engages in another sort of intimacy when she meets an old boyfriend for an adulterous liaison.  Within days, all of these people are dead--personal connection has become toxic.  (Meanwhile, another form of impersonal connection is shown to be toxic in its own way, as Jude Law, the film's only purely villainous character--and perhaps its only real misstep--uses his conspiracy theory blog to plug an herbal remedy as the cure that authorities don't want people to know about, thus fueling a panic and making himself rich, then tries to persuade his readers not to take the government's vaccine.)

    The problem is that while Contagion is very good at making the benign and affectionate seem sinister, it doesn't have enough heart to argue convincingly for the necessity of emotion and connection.  When, at the end of the film, Damon's character finds Beth's camera with photos from her last trip and breaks down crying, we know academically what is happening--not only is Damon finally letting himself process his wife's death after months of thinking only of his and his daughter's survival, but he's forgiving his wife for betraying him before her death.  But for all of Damon's fine work--and he is one of the standouts in a top-notch cast that also features very good performances by Ehle and Kate Winslet--his grief doesn't carry through the screen.  The film is a little too cold and too schematic to support it.  More powerful is its final shot, in which the genesis of the virus is revealed and fingers are pointed back at humanity (albeit in a typically reserved fashion; though terrorism, Chinese chauvinism, and American capitalism are all suggested as the virus's possible cause, the real reason turns out to be a combination of factors that leaves no one blameless).  That cynicism feels much closer to Contagion's heart than any of its attempts to be heartfelt.

  • In Time - Andrew Niccol's 1997 film Gattaca is generally hailed as one of the best science fiction films of the last two decades.  I don't disagree with that assessment, but I also think that it is something of a backhanded compliment.  Gattaca is highly praised precisely because it's a film.  In mediums where science fiction is a more developed, more sophisticated genre, it would be considered middling at best.  Its core flaw--a fascination with its central conceit that nearly leads the film to simplify itself and its world into oblivion--is emblematic of highbrow SF cinema, but because of strong characters (and equally strong performances) and a surprising soulfulness, Gattaca works.  In Time, Niccol's first foray into science fiction since Gattaca, lacks these saving graces, and dives headlong into the pitfalls that Gattaca so nearly avoided.  On the other hand, it has a lot more car chases and shootouts.  The central concept this time around is that attainable immortality has turned time into a currency.  At the age of 25 your aging stops, and a clock (handily displayed on your forearm, which several Israeli reviewers have taken as a Holocaust reference but somehow didn't ping me that way at all) starts counting down from a year.  You can use that time to buy goods and services and earn more of it by working, but if the clock runs out, you die.

    The metaphor is clear.  Paolo Bacigalupi did something similar in his calorie universe stories, in which he tries to draw attention to resource scarcity and global food shortages by turning calories into currency.  Niccol's focus is income inequality, so he creates a world in which the rich have eons in the bank while the poor are lucky to scrounge together a few days, and where the connection between destitution and death is immediate.  Where Bacigalupi used the calorie economy to create a vibrant, complex world, however, Niccol spends most of the movie making puns--the regions divided according to their occupants' wealth are "time zones," criminals who siphon off time from the weak and helpless are "minutemen," the policemen who regulate the flow of time are "timekeepers," the poor who can't get ahead of their debts are "living day to day."  In the whole of In Time, there's only one truly resonant exploration of its premise, the observation that the poor do everything quickly so as not to waste their precious minutes, while languor and dalliance have become status symbols for the rich (however, when this observation clashes with Niccol's passion for fine attire, it produces several moments of presumably unintentional comedy; despite speed being such an important attribute to the poor characters that they spend several scenes literally running for their lives, hoping to reach a charge-up point or someone who can top them up before their clock runs out, every woman in the film, rich or poor, wears slinky dresses and stiletto heels).  This single, affecting note aside, In Time brays its message, the better to stress the real world parallels of its nightmare economy.

    Justin Timberlake plays Will Salas, a poor man who is given 100 years by a suicidal tycoon (whose claim that death is necessary for the human soul is only one of the many avenues of its premise that In Time fails to explore; the film isn't even particularly good at creating characters who are trapped in much younger bodies--Olivia Wilde, Vincent Kartheiser, and Matt Bomer are completely unconvincing as middle aged or ancient people).  This is such a disruption to the system that the timekeepers, led by Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) are dispatched to arrest him, allegedly because they believe he stole the time, but really because they fear he might give it away to the poor and upend a balance that allows a precious few to live forever while the multitudes die.  Leon is the film's best character, a true believer despite the fact that the system benefits him only slightly, but the film squanders him--his purpose is either to spout speeches meant to illustrate how evil and exploitative the system is or act as an audience to Kartheiser's even more villainous speeches about same (the phrase "Darwinian Capitalism" is uttered with an entirely straight face).

    Having established the weighty parallel with real-world economic hardship, Niccol takes it in the most predictable, cloying direction possible.  Shortly into the film, Will kidnaps Kartheiser's daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), and the two quickly fall into a romance and embark on a Bonnie and Clyde-style robbery spree, distributing stolen time to the poor.  But both the romance and the robberies are thin stuff, and the latter in particular call attention to the plot's many holes.  In Time is, if you'll forgive the pun, a timely film--the injustices it rages against are on everybody's lips as Europe teeters on the verge of bankruptcy, social protests emerge all over the world, and income inequality becomes a buzzword--but beyond pointing out this unfairness Niccol turns out to have little to say about it.  His simplistic world might strain the viewer's patience, but the Robin Hood solution he posits to it insults our intelligence.  In Time's characters repeatedly tell us that there is nothing worse than wasting time, but the film's failure to say much of anything about such a relevant topic suggests that it is a far worse thing to waste good timing.

3 comments:

Alexander said...

Hmm, a movie I've seen before, Contagion, based on your review I won't seek out In Time. Cruel review to raise my hopes with 'same director as Gattaca' and then to collapse it with everything that follows.

I liked Contagion a bit more than you did it seems, although a similar balance of most of its problems. I did feel that the diffuse nature of the film was an appeal by the end, the way that death was so indiscriminate, that Damon's character played no actual significant role beyond his own survival. Most affecting was the portrayal of a CDC researcher doing everything right but still dying horribly. Most interesting I thought was the portrayal of the government as a whole--at the same time struggling to cope to the situation, prone to safeguarding relatives over the common good in a crisis, and the only major hope anyone had. Also as a horror film it works quite well--except insofar as the film hesitates in the end, and things seem to stabilize and recover far too smoothly.

Agree on the weakness of the blogger character, everytime he showed up it seemed like an entirely different, and far less appealing, film. Far too cartoonishly evil, there were a few striking visuals of him walking through the plague area in his suit, but his actions were really non-engaging.

I'd say Sorderberg has done a lot better but this was a mostly smart production, and a model I'd like more bio-thrillers and horror to follow generally.

Niall said...

Interesting that the ending of Contagion worked for you, because for me it fell foul of the didacticness you diagnose in In Time. Up to that point I'd been quite impressed by the choice to start with Day 2 and only imply how the virus had got started -- that knowledge isn't within reach of the characters, after all, so it felt in keeping with the rest of the film, and I thought it was fairly clear what had happened in general terms.

Nic suggested that the weakness of the Jude Law character was in part down to the fact that we don't get a clear demonstration of the cost of his misinformation, beyond a bit of convenience store looting and the reporter who turns up on his doorstep; she thought we needed to follow someone who actually believed in his blog, as a character in their own right. I'm inclined to agree that would have helped, and I think the film is short enough that it could stand the addition of a plot strand.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

As I say in the review, the ending to mind carries through the complexity and ambivalence of the film's story (and having seen In Time I can tell you that even the most heavy-handed parts of Contagion don't approach its level). The cause of the virus isn't evil Americans destroying the habitats of disease-ridden bats, or evil Chinese allowing disease to infest their livestock, but both. I agree that the film would have worked just as well without the ending, but I didn't feel that it significantly changed the tone. Also, the characters were absolutely within reach of that knowledge - Marion Cotilard's character is on the verge of looking into Beth's movements when she's kidnapped, and with the photos on Beth's camera documenting her movements, it would have been fairly easy to find the moment of her infection (in fact the only part of this I find implausible is the notion that Damon still has the camera - I would have expected the CDC to take the memory card for just that purpose).

I'm not sure I agree that we needed to see more of the consequences of Alan's actions. Surely the problem with him is that he's already so evil, and showing us more of the damage he causes would only have intensified the audience's dislike of him. What might have worked, though, is for Alan to have been in the background of a story about one of his readers.

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