Contagion is a disaster film that would seemingly fit perfectly in Robert Altman’s wheelhouse. Featuring multiple character threads and no guarantee of closure, Contagion tries to dictate the intimate thoughts of random individuals on a world scale. Much like an Altman film, Contagion boasts an impressive cast of Academy Award winners and nominees that all have opportunities to shine. The only difference is that this outbreak film is not even close to being as long as an Altman film, thus it lacks the length to give its characters time to breathe in their own situations. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Contagion smartly highlights how quickly a new disease can be spread amidst the poor souls who walk this planet. By treating the camera like a microscope, Soderbergh does a tremendous job of showing how a miniscule event (like the quick brushing of hands) can turn into a pandemic. It’s the small things that tip the scales.
Unfortunately, as mentioned before, the film lacks the breadth to truly tackle all of its threads. It’s this lack of face time with our characters that makes Contagion feel unfulfilling. But, one storyline the film knocks out of the park is the arc of Matt Damon’s widowed husband, Mitch Emhoff. To put it bluntly, Mitch has to come to grips with a disease that has eradicated half his family and exposed his wife’s extra-marital affair. Damon’s performance is beyond heart-wrenching as his character is constantly hounded by the fear of an unknown disease and a future that is dictated by groups operating on a macro-level. The moments that find Damon walking through a desolate, looted town are truly horrific. These scenes project an ominous thought: a disease may hurt us, but paranoia will likely kill us.
It’s easy to watch Submarine and see traces of Wes Anderson in writer/director Richard Ayoade’s debut film. With that being said, it’s also easier to see that Ayoade is also a little more emotionally refined than Mr. Anderson. Ayoade, who is notably known for the British series The IT Crowd, has a deft ability in taking his characters idiosyncrasies and mining them for emotional insecurities. This runs counter to Anderson’s characters whose gigantic tics often distance themselves from reality and the audience. Now, I won’t disagree that Ayoade’s visual palette exists in the same realm as Anderson’s. Their movements behind the camera emanate a similar vibe, but Anderson’s style seems more infatuated with itself than it does with supporting the characters. They’re more style oriented than story oriented, where Ayoade’s visuals are suffocating in their beauty and thematic weight. What Ayoade has in common with Anderson is that his breakout film concerns a young male growing into his own skin. For those not in the know, I’m referring to Anderson’s Rushmore.
Where Rushmore was about a boy’s first thrust with love, Submarine is similarly a dark tale about a boy, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), trying to get laid and save his parents’ marriage amidst his own self-discovery. He falls in love, spies on his parents and tries to ruin the life of his mystic neighbor. You know, teen stuff. Filled with a cast of young, honest looking teens, Submarine feels genuine in its attempt to capture the experimentation that occurs when a human moves out of adolescence and into the emotional mine field known as the teenage years. Bolstered by a magical score that emulates Jean Constantin’s efforts from The 400 Blows, Submarine is an easy film to fall in love with. Sure, the film’s narration is self-referential, but never does it feel pretentious or a forced attempt to be the smartest film in the room. It’s a kind, nostalgic reminder from Ayoade that being a teenager is as dark and confusing as it is revelatory.