The end of the world is a fixation that has captured the imagination of countless filmmakers in several eras of the medium's history. Even Charlie Chaplin pondered the apocalypse in an unproduced screenplay co-written by film critic James Agee. While the zombie subgenre, pioneered by George Romero over 40 years ago with "Night of the Living Dead," combined the gloomy scenario with a terrific form of escapism, it led the scenario away from the scarier prospects of what a real threat to humankind might look like. ("Dr. Strangelove" did not become the paradigm.) Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion," which I finally watched this week, gets closer to depicting the real deal.
A hardcore bio-thriller that feels like a mix of "Syriana" and "28 Days Later," Soderbergh's movie creates a palpable intensity that supersedes edge-of-your-seat entertainment in the most conventional sense. There's no external threat, nothing chasing you up the stairs or creeping out of the shadows with sharp fangs. But Cliff Martinez's phenomenal soundtrack generates a frantic discomfort in tune with the interlocking plot, a pile-up of political and scientific ruminations and the occasional burst of human frustrations. Soderbergh pulls it together with a cold distance while at the same time creating an intimate work about the nature of relationships in times of crisis.
The struggle to control a killer virus proceeds with a continuing lack of sentimentality, replicating the big picture--that odds of survival are low--while giving enough depth to its main characters to make you fear for their lives. Finding that balance, Soderbergh has made one of his most uniformly thought-provoking movies in quite a long time, and also a fairly warm-hearted one, despite the dour prognosis it offers on humanity's frailty. Like "Zodiac," it focuses more the search than the result, the need for answers rather than whether or not finding them does any good. (If you've seen it, ask yourself: If any single character reaches a happy ending, have you seen a happy ending like it before?)
Nobody can dispute that this has been the year of the apocalypse movie. "Contagion" doesn't deliver the genre goods, but it works outside of them. Everything from "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" to "Melancholia," both of which I enjoyed tremendously, travel beyond reality in order to represent its demise in a more expressionistic way, by preying on collective doomsday anxieties. "Contagion" plants its feet on firmer ground. It's not just a part of the end-of-the-world cinematic trend, but the stablest ambassador for the fears it represents. See this unnerving thriller with your eyes wide open, or don't see it all. But whatever you do, don't touch your face.