Whether it be “Twelve Monkeys”, “Virus”, “Outbreak” or the new Steven Soderbergh project “Contagion”, I’ve always had an affection for end of the world, deadly virus movies. In “Contagion”, Soderbergh takes a much different approach than most of these types of films, choosing to give it a more realistic and clinical feel. I’ve heard it described as a “medical thriller” and that’s pretty accurate. We spend a lot of time with scientists and doctors from The Centers for Disease Control and The World Health Organization as they try to identify and find a cure for a ravaging epidemic. Soderbergh fills his film with an incredible cast most of which are perfectly utilized. None of them play the one key protagonist. Instead each are cogs in Soderbergh’s greater machine.
The movie wastes no time getting things started. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) contracts a mysterious virus while on a business trip in Hong Kong. Before the symptoms set in and on her way home to her husband (Matt Damon) and children in Minneapolis, she stops off in Chicago where she not only has a quick fling with an old flame but passes on the highly contagious virus. After arriving home, Beth develops a cough and a high fever which results in her being the first casualty of what becomes a worldwide epidemic. Damon’s storyline gives the movie it’s biggest injection of humanity. It brings the seriousness of the threat to a household level and for the most part is very effective.
Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) from the CDC teams up with Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to find the origin of the virus which they hope will lead to a cure. This is where the movie really takes off. Fishburne and especially Winslet are convincing as doctors who are well versed in science but caught completely off guard by both the nature of the disease and the rate of it’s spread. In fact, it’s a professor (Elliott Gould) defying direct orders from the CDC who gives them their first lead towards a viable vaccine. What makes this work is Scott Burns’ incredible dialogue. It’s crisp, intelligent, and filled with all sorts of medical lingo. But it never gets bogged down in the terminology. Instead it feels like we’re sitting in on these intense and urgent conversations.
Soderbergh also introduces us to Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), sent to Hong Kong by the World Health Organization to investigate the origin of the virus. Me also meet Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a blogger who is actually more of a conspiracy theorist. He believes that the government is hiding information and threatens to reveal it regardless of the consequences. We even get John Hawkes in a minuscule role as a janitor at the disease center. Each of these character’s stories branch off from the main narrative and each offer some interesting angles. But there are huge gaps in Dr. Orantes’ story that I wished had been filled in a little. Also Hawkes’ character is terribly underwritten. I also didn’t find any of their individual endings all that satisfying.
“Contagion” moves at a sharp and steady pace, never letting the audience feel as though the threat has let up. Soderburgh throws us plenty of curve balls and no character is too big to fall victim of the virus. Knowing this had me constantly questioning how the movie would end. The first part of the film is the strongest and it does a great job of setting up the threat. It also got in my head as it showed the numerous ways germs can spread. Soderbergh’s closeup shots of door handles, drinking glasses, and handshakes had me developing my own personal phobias. The second half of the film features some riveting sequences showing the chaos brought on by the quarantines and shards of misinformation that was spreading throughout the cities. The great thing is that Soderbergh doesn’t milk these scenes. He gives us just enough of them to set the proper tone.
“Contagion” is a movie that starts a lot stronger than it finishes but it never goes off the rails. It’s biggest problem is that it branches out in too many directions and ends up shortchanging a few of the characters. But it’s still a high quality film that doesn’t give in to any one single formula. It develops the threat, raises the stakes, and lets a remarkable cast tell the story. Soderbergh puts together a really good film here.