You know how those global disaster movies that Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay pump out every other year feature wide shots of asteroids, alien space ships and tornadoes wrecking havoc on cities, destroying tons of property and lives in their wake? They’re terrifying, thrilling and usually the only reason to see those movies. In Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh does something a bit different. He focuses on the tiniest and most insignificant of objects – note pads, coins, bus poles, a touch, a kiss on the cheek, a handshake – but somehow manages to replicate the same terrifying effect. We’re terrified because his killer isn’t a million dollar computer generated special effect but an all too real microscopic virus whose only mission is to survive by killing its host and then moving on to the next and the next until there’s nowhere else to go. Its goal is to stay three steps ahead of death and if it has to mutate, it will. You know the saying “silent but deadly?” That’s exactly what this film is about.
Structured like his Oscar-winning drug war epic Traffic and told with the precision and chilliness of a police procedural, Soderbergh’s Contagion, written by Scott Z. Burns who also collaborated with the director on the under-rated The Informant, is a meticulously researched and paranoia-teemed thriller that examines what it would be like if a rapidly mutating and contagious virus were to spread through the world and how society would react against it. In a nutshell, let’s just say that when fear and frustration are injected into the mix, the virus would be the least of our problems.
Soderbergh and Burns start it all with a coughing American (Gwyneth Paltrow) boarding a flight out of Hong Kong to Minneapolis. Soon she is having terrible headaches, losing her vision and eventually losing consciousness. Within 12 hours, she is dead after an epic spasm on the operating table (Gwyneth Paltrow haters are going to have a field day with this scene!) and neither the doctors nor the coroners have any idea what caused her death. A day later, her son is dead too, leaving her husband Mitch (an excellent Matt Damon), apparently immune to the virus, devastated and in shock. With pandemonium and fear soon enveloping the citizens of the city, Mitch resolves to take whatever means necessary to protect the life of his daughter – even if it means banning her from going to the prom or blowing a fist-sized hole into anyone who tries to touch him.
As Cliff Martinez’s ominous synth soundtrack starts to pick up over title cards labeled “DAY 2,” “DAY 5,” “DAY 15” etc… we witness more similar cases all over the world. It’s at this time that we’re introduced to several other players and story-arcs. There’s Dr. Elis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne) of the CDC in Atlanta who sends out Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), an Epidemic Intelligence Specialist, to investigate the origin of the virus in Minneapolis and identify patient zero. Elsewhere on the planet, the WHO sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to Hong Kong to examine video footage of the casino where the virus was first reported. There’s also a struggling British blogger named Alan Krumweidie (Jude Law doing his best Julian Assange impression) who uses the fear and paranoia caused by the pandemic for his personal gain. Throughout this, Dr. Alle Hextall (a brilliant Jennifer Ehle), a CDC scientist, and her assistant Dr. David Eisenberg (Demitri Martin) work round-the-clock to create a vaccine against the disease but find themselves continuously three steps behind the deadly virus as it mutates and spreads at a rate much faster than that they can catch up with.
For most of its running time, Contagion is absolutely riveting stuff. Soderbergh, Burns and editor Stephen Mirrione don’t waste any time getting you into the hypochondriac state of mind with lines like, “The average person touches their face three to five times every waking minute. In between, they touch door knobs, water fountains and each other” and “Don’t talk to anyone, don’t touch anyone, stay away from other people.” The dull lighting and extreme close-ups only accent the mind-frame of the viewer.
With the mood set, they craftily juggle the storylines from Damon’s layman in the outside world to Ehle’s scientist in the claustrophobic labs as well as Fishburne and Winslet’s officials as they try to balance their lives in both worlds. While the arc covered by Jude Law’s character doesn’t fit in with the rest, it’s an interesting arc that sheds light on the seedier aspect of the humanity. People like him are warts who only pop up in times like those portrayed in the picture.
It all plays like a mystery film or a treasure hunt of sorts as the investigators move from one clue to the next, trying to join the dots back to patient zero. Sequences where the cities of Chicago, Minneapolis and San Francisco descend into pandemonium are reminiscent of scenes from 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead – even if there aren’t any slobbering zombies jogging about.
What prevents Contagion from being an A-grade thriller is that with so many characters and all the focus on the chilly, procedural and non-sensational medical jargon, a lot of the human aspect gets lost in the process. The only characters who we sympathize with are Damon’s and Fishburne’s characters and that’s solely because they have the most screen time. Winslet doesn’t get to do much while Cotillard’s arc is never fully-realized. Additionally, solid character actors like John Hawkes, Elliot Gould and Bryan Cranston are wasted in bit parts that are also never touched upon once the film starts to resemble an apocalyptic thriller.
Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is a tense, meticulously researched and thought out picture that unlike previous apocalyptic thrillers, takes a realistic, non-sensational approach to its subject matter i.e. tackling how society would react to a global pandemic. Part social commentary, part police procedural and part horror thriller, this is riveting stuff that’s more documentary than narrative picture. However, this is also its greatest flaw as the human element is discarded in favor of medical and political mumbo-jumbo. Still, with across-the-board terrific performances (Damon, Ehle and Law being standouts), a steely soundtrack and oozing paranoia, this is definitely worth a watch.