Monday, September 19, 2011

Surviving Contagion in the theater

They've seen how this post ends.
Over the weekend we did something we haven't done in a while: saw a movie in the theater. It wasn't so much that we had an overwhelming desire to see something that's out at the moment; we had some passes (so it wouldn't cost anything) and that vague sense of missing the experience of going to see something on the big screen—something that years ago we did with regularity. Perhaps it's some subtle nostalgia for an era in our lives when we weren't so busy, for when going to the local Cineplex every other weekend seemed feasible. In any case, it worked out that this past Saturday we considered ourselves to have those hours to spare.

That didn't necessarily coincide with the availability of a film about which at least I was excited to see, and as my wife had some interest in Contagion (and I didn't object) that's for what we exchanged our passes for tickets. (The other one of mild interest: Drive, with Ryan Gosling.)

The movie came out a week earlier, and was (at least in my little realm of what I pay attention to) a significant topic of conversation last week. A couple of the pop culture podcasts to which I listen (Culture Gabfest, Extra Hot Great) discussed it, replete with disclaimers about spoilers. I listened nonetheless, not realizing at the time I'd be seeing the film in a matter of days. But the thing about Contagion: There is no spoiling it. That's not saying it's a worthless waste of time; it's merely a movie where you can know exactly what's going to happen and your enjoyment (or lack thereof) will be the same as if you went in knowing nothing.

Of course, knowing nothing is not realistic; these days if you see a movie you probably saw at least trailers for it ahead of time. It's so unlikely that one wouldn't have at least a modicum of expectations from what one saw on billboards or ads on TV prior to getting in the theater.

And with this film in particular, there's no big secret that could be revealed that would spoil it. I'd argue that if you know what you're getting better than what you'd get from those trailers, you're better off.

The ads make this out to be a disaster movie. It's not. It's a movie where the plot commences with a disaster (a pandemic) but where a disaster movie ratchets up the tension, making you wonder who will survive and who won't, putting you through a roller coaster of emotion, this movie, while showing what is likely a realistic portrayal of how that would play out, it keeps you calm at all times. It's basically a promotional video for the CDC and World Health Organization (and one certainly hopes that in the event of such an actual situation those organizations would handle it as well as they do in the movie). It's the anti-disaster disaster movie.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially in this era of the media driving the public into a frenzy over even the slightest thing. But it's not the sort of thing that makes for a completely satisfying movie-going-and-seeing-on-the-big-screen experience; it's a reasonably well-made film, I suppose, but as to some sort of larger-than-life tale with amazing visuals that really draws one in emotionally… not so much.

I'm sure it's the film Soderbergh wanted to make—it has too many quasi-artsy moments to have been the work that came from copious notes from the suits—and it's not a bad movie; there's decent performances, especially from Matt Damon. But still, it was… a movie—one that would have been as good waiting for DVD or streaming (or whatever the heck Netflix is doing six months from now). Or perhaps just reading the summary.

At the end of the film (if one sits through the credits) there's a message urging people to be prepared for catastrophe, which in retrospect makes the movie seem a little like a public service announcement with Oscar winners, but here's the thing: The next day we did go and replenish our emergency supplies, but that was not because we saw Contagion; we were planning on doing so even before we decided to see the movie.  We would have done so even had we seen Drive. Contagion merely didn't dissuade us from doing so.

Of course, there were moments during the middle of the film when it could have talked us out of stocking up on canned goods and non-perishables, because the scenes where society breaks down just a bit makes it clear the man with the food will be less well-prepared than the man with the most ammunition, but the ultimate lesson was: If a pandemic strikes, a bunch of us are going to die, and there'll be pandemonium for a while, but unless we turn into savages a good percentage of us will survive long enough to get inoculated with the vaccine science is able to find and mass-produce.

You'll sleep soundly after seeing this, which is its greatest failing as a disaster movie. Which is why you need to know beforehand that it's not a disaster movie, even with Gwyneth Paltrow's character dying (the big featured plot point in the trailer).

In real life I don't want any catastrophic events like this, but when I'm in that darkened theater I want unimaginably catastrophic events, or else it makes going to the movie seem like a minor catastrophe.

At least, when you only go once in a while.

So if you go to the movies regularly, it's not a big deal. However, if you're in that boat, you already saw it last week and it's too late for this to be of any help to you. But you don't need help.

You're already inoculated from this sort of reaction.

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