Steven Soderbergh is one of the few filmmakers working today who rarely repeats himself. He is as comfortable at making big Hollywood spectacles like the Ocean’s series as he is with idiosyncratic low-budget projects like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience. He’s also delved into film noir in The Good German (one of my favorite films of 2006) and straight out action in the upcoming Haywire. With diseases of the week like Mad Cow, H1N1, SARS, and bird flu constantly making headlines, it appears to be the perfect time for an epidemic movie.
Contagion begins on Day 2 as Beth Ernhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), an executive with a mining corporation, returning to her home in Minnesota after a business trip in Hong Kong. She’s looking worse for wear to which she blames on jetlag. Soon, she collapses on her kitchen floor, foaming at the mouth and going into convulsions. She dies shortly at the hospital to the horror of her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), who demands answers, but gets none. Beth isn’t the only victim as a socialite in London, a businessman in China, and a student in Tokyo all die from this mysterious new disease. This new virus, dubbed MEV-1, is a strain researchers have never encountered before and they struggle to create a cure as millions are infected.
In the vein of Traffic and other hyperlink films, Contagion juggles an all-star cast and a myriad of plotlines. Matt Damon is the emotional core as the everyman just trying to survive after losing not only his wife, but his stepson as well. He takes the role of overprotective father to the extremes as he attempts to shield his teenage daughter, Jory (a strong screen debut by Anna Jacoby-Heron). Laurence Fishburne appears as Dr, Ellis Cheever, the head of the CDC who attempts to contain the disease and public opinion. He is stymied in his efforts by Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a hostile blogger who turns sentiment against the government with his conspiracy theories while pushing a holistic cure. Behind the scenes, he’s secretly profiting from the manipulated demand.
Soderbergh eschews genre conventions by taking a clinical and procedural approach to the subject matter rather than a sensationalistic approach. Shot in a cold, gray color palette, Contagion deals in the mathematics and hard facts of the outbreak, showing how quickly the virus would spread, the fatalities, and even the harsh realities of how long a vaccine would be distributed. No surprise, if you’re not rich and/or white, you’re kind of screwed. Expected imagery such as hospital wards filled with sick patients and mass graves appear in Contagion, but Soderbergh shoots them in a nonchalant manner. He is more interested in the minutiae. As MEV-1 spreads through touch, the camera lingers on ordinary objects such as door knobs, credit cards, and a bowl of complimentary peanuts. The mundane aspects of the virus make it all the more frightening, Just as Jaws made you afraid to go in the water, you might not leave the house without sterile gloves and a breathing mask after watching Contagion. The way in which basic services break down is also chilling. Delivery of essential supplies ends when the teamster unions call it quits. Doctors and nurses walk away from their jobs for fear of becoming afflicted. Also, don’t bother calling 911. When Mitch tries to call after spotting armed men, he is answered with an automated message. “You have selected regicide. If you know the name of the king or queen being murdered, press 1 now!”
Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who also wrote The Informant!) don’t get on a soapbox by launching into tirades about government or the pharmaceutical industry. The majority of characters are portrayed on an even keel. Dr. Cheever is an honest though flawed official while members of the military and Homeland Security are shown as folks just trying to do their job. Yet, the bad apples are still present. As the CDC’s Dr. Erin Mears, Kate Winslet is forced to deal with bureaucrats who are more concerned about budgets than treating the ill. Looters and rioting are par for the course. There is also an underlying indictment against the rapid rise of global industrialization, another virulent plague striking modern society. I won’t spoil the ending, but the fact that a multinational corporation inadvertently causes the catastrophe is something to chew on.
Not all the storylines in Contagion are winners. Law’s Krumwiede feels out of place with the docudrama approach of the film. His storyline is meant to symbolize how disinformation and panic are just as contagious as any pathogen, especially in an era where social media has so firmly integrated into the way we live. But, his character is handled in a very cartoonish manner. He has crooked teeth, for goodness sakes. The only thing missing is a handlebar mustache. Blogging is handled in an outdated manner as if the script had been written four or five years ago. Krimwiede loudly proclaims that print media is dead when a paper is dismissive of his findings. There is a wonderfully clever line spoken by Elliot Gould (as a research scientist) when he rebukes that blogging is just “graffiti with punctuation.”
Marion Cotillard is also given the shaft as a doctor from the World Health Organization dispatched to Hong Kong to track down the path of the MEV-1. She is later kidnapped by a colleague who is desperate to receive the vaccine for his rural village. Cotillard is only given a short amount of screen time and then disappears for most of the picture until it’s convenient to remember she’s still around.
Soderbergh has assembled an impressive cast where even the smallest supporting roles are played by actors of note such as Gould and John Hawkes as a janitor at the CDC’s headquarters. Damon and Winslet give two of the most stirring performances in the film. Paltrow’s time is short. She doesn’t even survive the trailer. However, her early death puts the audience on alert that nobody is safe, no matter how famous they are. Ironically, the best performance in Contagion belongs to an actress who isn’t as well-known as her colleagues. Jennifer Ehle, who played Geoffrey Rush’s wife in The King’s Speech, has won rave notices (and deservedly so) for a scientist working tirelessly to develop a cure.
Contagion also features a pulse pounding score from Cliff Martinez, who also composed the synth score for Drive. Throbbing electronic sounds form the backbone of Martinez’s music, which will set the view on edge.
As the disease ravages the Earth, populated metropolises give way to desolate urban landscapes reminiscent of a zombie movie. While Contagion has the feel of sci-fi flicks such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and 28 Days Later, it is an ultra-realistic, post-9/11 version of Outbreak. Contagion is creepy, enthralling, and will certainly skyrocket sales in Purell.