Following the press screening for “Contagion” in Atlanta, critics made dry jokes about washing their hands and took note of how many times they touch their faces each day. On our tongues were words like “fomites” and references were made to something known as “R0” (called the “R Naught” rate in the film). “Contagion” is one of the most informative, talk-heavy, films since “Inception” and “The Social Network,” but it isn’t the most entertaining from a blockbuster standpoint.
When Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns home to her family from a trip to Asia she’s sporting what at first seems like just a bad cold. Within hours she’s had a series of seizures or strokes. A trip to the emergency room doesn’t end well. The doctor tells her naive husband (Matt Damon) the bad news and he dismisses it immediately in disbelief. “What are you talking about,” he yells with no hesitation. “What happened to her?” He repeats desperately. That question is a both a starting point and the central theme of the film. Just what happened? And where in the world did the virus come from?
In time, the virus jumps into the general population spreading quickly all over the world. The World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and even CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta himself all try to deal with the situation and find a cure. The dead will be buried in mass graves and the world trapped in a chaotic struggle. Is it terrorism? Or just some kind of divine selection process meant to thin the herd? A gifted ensemble cast directed by directing auteur Steven Soderbergh tackles the disaster picture from a very technical perspective.
Positioned after the end of the official summer movie season, “Contagion” is an attempt to blend smart scientific social commentary with the virus thriller genre. But where “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” managed this within the science-fiction remake wrapper earlier this year, “Contagion” is so very grounded and realistic that some viewers might find it too clinical and cold. I was fascinated and impressed as the mysterious origin of the killer virus in the film was tracked down even as the virus became ever more widespread around the globe. Soderbergh works from a sharp script by Scott Z. Burns with whom he worked with on 2009’s “The Informant.” And the direction is just as finely drawn as the writing—intelligent characters are developed on top of an intimate and harrowing backdrop. Like the real world, no one is safe, which keeps you constantly guessing.
The ensemble cast is a tricky combination. The pairing of Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow couldn’t really work and be convincing if focused on over the length of a feature film, so fortunately Paltrow checks out early as you can tell in the trailer. And the human personal tragedy Damon is forced to go through is impactful. It is as though the writer and director understand that the two Oscar winning actors have very little believable chemistry but find a solid narrative way to put them together without being a distraction. There is a scene in which Damon’s character breaks down that is particularly affecting. The power of the disease will sober up viewers early on.
Kate Winslet melts into the rumpled character of Dr. Erin Mears, who investigates the outbreak in the field. The great Marion Cotillard effortlessly plays another doctor investigating for the WHO in another part of the world. Lauence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston play bureaucratic and military leaders grappling with the political realities of a deadly worldwide epidemic. Fine supporting roles are of note include Elliot Gould as a scientist and John Hawkes as a janitor (the kind of role he’s so very good at making important and real). But in a cast this big one performance stood out to me—Jude Law’s turn as the conspiratorial opportunistic blogger Alan Krumwiede. The handsome Law looks awful here through subtle changes both in personality and physically (he’s got a wicked tooth that is sometimes visible in low angle shots). Krumwiede is one of the first bloggers to publicize a video showing one of the virus’ early victims. He warns of a coming apocalypse and is, at first, dismissed as some kind of kook. And he is a kook, but even the nuts can be right sometimes. The movie has fun with his personal journey, which helps to break the depressing and daunting tension of the story.
Director Soderbergh utilizes his independent film background fusing it into a big movie here. Many of the shots in the film are the kinds that you’d see in a lower budget entry. The visual scope featuring somewhat noisy muted colors all captured on both the Red Epic and the indie-friendly Red One cameras causes this big narrative to seem more intimate and personal. And despite the seemly derivative material, it is Soderbergh’s choices with the camera that often makes the movie unique.
“Contagion” is not the kind of action driven thriller that audiences have been spoon fed for the last few decades. A science-based mystery thriller the film skirts formula but still stays familiar enough to remain interesting over its feature running time. And while there is a worldwide disaster with a lot of dead bodies in the movie, I’m not sure that it is really entertaining. I was fascinated and impressed with the execution. “Contagion” is a film I admired more than I enjoyed.