Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hollywood's Immune System

In order to see Contagion comfortably, I chose a late, late showtime: 10:55, the last showtime at the Tanforan 20. From what I'd read about the effectiveness of Steven Soderbergh's new thriller, I wanted at least a few rows of seats between me and the next moviegoer. There were only 8 or so in the auditorium, and nobody was coughing. (but there was, as there always seems to be in late-night movie screenings these days, a couple dragging their toddler-aged kid along.)

Contagion is a very good, very scary film. Soderbergh calls it a horror film, evading the "thriller" tag, and he has a good point. Good horror plays on primal fears-- remember that grotty dude hacking away without covering his mouth at Starbucks last week? Sure you do. That, coupled with the always-unsettling glimpse of the thin veneer of society peeling away at the epidemic's later stages, creates feelings of rising unease as the film progresses. And as it uses Soderburgh's signature multiple-storyline style, you're never quite sure which of the Oscar-caliber ensemble is going to bite the dust next.

Later in the film there are plenty of scenes of National Guard troops in digital camouflage and Hum-Vees keeping roadblocks. This aspect calls back to the discussion about Torchwood: Miracle Day, which covers remarkably similar ground concerning profound social disruption. But here's the thing: the high-concept sci-fi idea of everyone on earth inexplicably granted life everlasting is sort of fun to think about, but the hard-science idea of an unstoppable virus wiping out millions is not only depressing and scary to ponder, less than 100 years ago something very similar actually happened.

Aside from the micron-sized and therefore un-telegenic virus, there's a human villain in this piece: Alan Krumweide (Jude Law), a crummy, weedy fellow who sows fear and misinformation and false hope in alternative medicine cures through his blog. In a film that focuses on the selfless efforts of government scientist to save lives (a la Outbreak and The Andromeda Strain) he represents the conspiracy nuts, the anti-vaccine moms-- the whole, weird anti-science know-nothing movement that seems to depressingly be steadily gaining traction in larger society.

But I think there's something more subtle going on here. This is at least the second major feature film which paints a harsh picture of the internet in general and social networking specifically. Recall the tone of The Social Network, a film that exposes Facebook's roots as a crude sexist college diversion and it's founders as litigious snobs or prickly sociopaths. And in Contagion, it's made clear that everything would be going so much better for humanity in general if it were not for some nutty blogger from San Francisco (surprise: Hollywood yet again portrays the Bay Area as a scenic loony bin).

And why shouldn't establishment Hollywood view the Internet in the worst possible light? As far as the studios are concerned, it's a disease.

I think such negative depictions of internet culture in major movies are a sign of Hollywood's immune system going into overdrive. Even now, there is little the internet and social networking can do to help studios sell tickets: viral hits like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project are so rare they've become cautionary tales (as in: never mention either of them when you're pitching a script). In realpolitik, internet film marketing is just another money-suck for which studios are obliged to staff buildings full of web designers and marketers to create feckless web presences for their movies.

The internet has come to represent nothing less than a full attack on Hollywood, a galloping infection that attacks both control of product and the bottom line. The studio buys a script, and they have to make sure it doesn't get uploaded somewhere. Greenlight, and there are even more potential leaks. Outright piracy begins generally at the first pre-screenings right through general release, eating away box-office as effectively as a blood-borne parasite eats red blood cells. As whole films fall into bit-torrent oblivion, snippets of their films get cut out and put on YouTube or Daily Motion and there's little to be done about that either. Finally, even the home video market and it's tidy widget-style sales model is being sapped by streaming services, offering the same film for a fraction of the cost of a DVD or BluRay version.
As falling revenues draws the industry into existential crisis, we're seeing it's immune system deploy T-cells and leukocytes, out to destroy the malignancy. Expect to see more.

Once upon a time, internet culture as depicted by Hollywood was a rich source of pseudo-high-tech, blatantly unbelievable tropes: "I'll have to hack their IP with a custom-written worm to access their triple-encrypted password. And… there it is!" Remember Hackers (1995) with Angeline Jolie as "Acid Burn" and Jonny Lee Miller as "Crash Override?" Hoo-boy. But that was then: the era of that sort of fun-loving naivete is over.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a good movie! I think I'll watch it tonight, at home, in high def