The Review: Fear of infections is a fairly modern phenomena. While great crime dramas or romantic comedies have been the subject of movies for decades, our fear of disease in our anti-bacterial, post-MRSA world is only now really starting to provide fodder for the great and the good of Hollywood. (Maybe that great unmade Black Death movie is still out there somewhere). But after three decades of disaster movies laying waste to everything in sight, audiences expect certain things from their movies, and in those respects Steven Soderbergh’s latest delivers – up to a point.
In any disaster movie, the first thing you want to see is a high class array of talent being put in jeopardy. If there’s one thing Soderbergh does well, it’s put a cast together, and he’s obviously given the Filofax a good thumbing before the cameras rolled. As soon as the credits roll, Gwynneth Paltrow appears on screen and she’s the first in a long succession of famous and familiar faces who appear, then start coughing and looking a bit pasty and sweaty. It would take most of this review to list the ones who do well, although Paltrow does get killed off before she has chance to do any damage, but by and large the acting falls into two categories: being asked to cough and splutter before an inevitable bout of death (or, in the case of Matt Damon, standing around while other people do that), or to stand in a room looking at computer screens or a conference table surrounded by stern looking, smartly dressed men while delivering reams of medical exposition about infection rates and worst case scenarios, and everyone does that as well as you’d expect.
The alternating between coughing and general sternness is edited together at a fair lick. Regular Soderbergh contributor and Oscar winner Stephen Mirrione never lets the pace flag, with scenes finely trimmed and the scenario and the constant threat being used to generate mood. The mood itself is very tense, starting uneasily and steadily building as events escalate and the authorities struggle to keep pace with the spread of the infection. If anything, it feels a little too trimmed, and occasionally scenes that need time to breathe or resonate get lost a little as the general pace sweeps along everything in its path. The other obstacle that Contagion has to overcome is Jude Law, who appears to have been taking lessons at the “Physical Impairment and Dodgy Accent” school of acting, his performance consisting of a dodgy tooth and a dodgier accent. If you manage to work out whether his accent is Australian or Cockney, please do let me know.
Contagion has a lot it’s trying to say, about the potential of such a situation, and of how everyone from governments to pharmaceutical companies would react in such a scenario. Consequently it’s not surprise that the pacy editing and the huge number of different narrative threads mean that a few ideas feel a little underdeveloped; some characters disappear for long stretches, and their reappearance often leaves you wondering what they’ve been up to in the interim. The overriding feeling is one of frustration, as while what’s here is great, and will give you chills every time the person next to you starts scratching their head, Contagion feels as if it would have been more effective as a six hour miniseries than the hour and forty-five minutes that is actually presented. The final disappointment comes in the ending, as it feels as if a few punches have been pulled and we get to see an ending that’s already been spelled out in the exposition earlier, like a whodunnit where a signed confession is found halfway through but everyone keeps investigating, just in case. Still, Contagion will get under your skin, even if it won’t leave a lasting impression.
Why see it at the cinema: The crisp digital visuals are definitely best suited to the cinema, but the USP of Contagion is that your paranoia will increase markedly as soon as someone on the other side of the cinema starts coughing. You just don’t get that at home.
The Score: 7/10
The Review: The question of what comes after this life has perplexed philosophers and kept religions in business ever since man conjured up fire and learned how to tie stones to sticks to make primitive tools. It may not seem the most likely topic for a writer who’s made his name with a series of Tony Blair biopics, the most famous of which also featured Helen Mirren in a royal role, of course, but Peter Morgan has not solely worked in biographical territory, and here explores the possibilities of what might be awaiting us if there is anything to come. He’s chosen to work together three disparate stories on a global scale to see what impact various tragedies have had on individual lives, and how people react to death and the possibility of an afterlife.
The three stories in question concern Marie (Cecile De France), a reporter caught up in the tsunami which hit Thailand in 2004; George (Matt Damon), a psychic who seems to be able to see people in the hereafter but is trying to hide from the gifts he possesses; and Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren), twins who have their bond broken apart in unfortunate circumstances. The global span of the film allows not only the Asian tsunami but the 7/7 bombings to be worked into the narrative. Marie is almost killed in the tsumani and experiences what she believes to be some sense of the afterlife, and she is the most active of the protagonists; the twins are also fairly active, and this offsets the very passive nature of George’s story as the three intermingle.
The script, although produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin production company, has been directed by Clint Eastwood, and his unhurried directorial style will be familiar to anyone who’s seen his back catalogue. While this allows for some lovely characterisation, especially a burgeoning love story between George and a partner at a cookery course (Bryce Dallas Howard), it does mean that the three story strands take a very long time indeed to start to draw together. Damon and Howard are probably the best actors on show, and are in stark contrast to the young boys, who would probably struggle to be first choice in a school play; their delivery early on is so stilted as to almost beggar belief that they were even cast. There’s a lot of familiar faces in the rest of the cast, but most of them struggle to make any kind of impression.
So the direction is sluggish and the script meandering; aside from those few nice character notes there’s very little else that actually rings true. It’s fair enough that the film avoids too many answers about the nature of the afterlife; that it by and large avoids questions as well is more unfortunate and robs the film of narrative impetus for long periods. Given the choice of such well known major disasters on which to hang the narrative, Hereafter doesn’t really know what it wants to ask you, or indeed what it wants you to ask yourself about the impact of these events on the lives of the characters, or anyone else for that matter. When the three stories do finally converged it feels trite and the resolutions to each are slender and in one case almost laughable. Coupled with the visual effects, which have no weight and are totally unbelievable (almost as unbelievable as the fact that they’ve been nominated for an Academy Award), and a bizarre extended cameo from Derek Jacobi as himself, the questionable choices at every turn and lack of real substance make this one to avoid.
Why see it at the cinema: The chance to see very poor quality visual effects on a grand scale doesn’t come along every day. But if you want to see Matt Damon sit in a room and describe what someone else is telling him, slowly, with no recourse to any visual cues whatsoever, then don’t miss this opportunity.
The Score: 3/10