A film review by Craig J. Koban September 14, 2011


2011, PG-13, 105 mins.


Mitch: Matt Damon / Alan: Jude Law / Dr. Mears: Kate Winslet / Dr. Orantes: Marion Cotillard / Beth: Gwyneth Paltrow / Dr. Cheever: Laurence Fishburne / Dr. Sussman: Elliott Gould

Directed by Steven Soderbergh / Written by Scott Z. Burns.

CONTAGION is a mercilessly cold, calculating, and thoroughly eerie pandemic thriller, which is typified by director Steven Soderbergh’s disturbingly precise, understatedly stylish, and well paced direction.  The fact that the film has perhaps too many characters and subplots to invest in and that they’re less developed than they should be is probably of no real surprise.  CONTAGION is less about its personas and their side stories and more about drumming up an escalating and methodical sense of unease and dread.  And for that, Soderbergh delivers the goods in a strong mainstream diversion for him. 

This is not a disaster thriller in the more accepted sense of the genre.  There are no really large action set pieces, cities are not completely destroyed, and heavily CGI-infused mayhem and epileptic-seizure-inducing editing are not the norms.  What’s most evocative here is how deceptively low key it all is: this is not a film that’s out to be flashy and kinetic, designed for impatient teen moviegoers that have attention deficit disorder.  No, Soderbergh is far too shrewd of a filmmaker for that type of dime-a-dozen artifice.  Instead, he films CONTAGION with an icy detachment and an unnerving, steely-eyed proficiency.  More importantly, though, is the fact that the film feels creepily plausible all throughout as it shows a slow and natural development of a virus and then given us a measured, but alarming view of the de-evolution of the world when such a disease grabs a hold of it.  Because of that, CONTAGION is far more terrifying than many other virus-plagued thrillers. 

The script – written by Scott Z. Burns, who previously worked with Soderbergh on the terrific THE INFORMANT! – is much like TRAFFIC in the way it tries to balance and weave in-between multiple story-threads involving a cross pollination of cultures.  It’s not done with the same level of slick polish or competence as TRAFFIC or, say, BABEL, but CONTAGION's screenplay remains fairly well thought out and tensely envisioned.  The film traverses chronologically (almost), giving us – as its retro-cool title cards indicate – “Day 2”, “Day 3”, and so forth descriptors (the conclusion of the film whisks us back to “Day 1” with a fiendishly clever explanation that shows how the virus precisely began).  We also get obligatory geographical title cards indicating the cities as well all over the world, but Soderbergh also does something interesting here by providing us the population numbers as well.  That has the effect of giving scale to the future pandemic to come, especially if it goes from host to host with an calamitous rate that would make the 1918 Spanish Flu bug look like a slight touch of the fever. 

The film's cast is universally stellar and well assembled: Matt Damon (one of Soderbergh’s best go-to actors) plays Mitch, whose wife (played briefly by Gwyenth Paltrow), a Minneapolis business woman, has returned from a trip from Hong Kong back home to Chicago…but something is not right.  No need for spoiler warning here (it’s in the trailers), but she dies rather suddenly from a mysterious and unknown virus that has left her doctors and husband mystified.  Just watch how Damon in particular (one of our finest and most attuned actors) goes through every divergent stage of receiving sudden death news in the film’s best scene; his wife’s untimely death is so immediate that he cannot initially accept that she’s gone.  One interesting side note:  Mitch and his daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron, natural and poised) seem to be immune. 

A man in Tokyo suffers from the same symptoms as Mitch’s wife, and as cell phone cameras record similar incidents all over the world, news of a deadly new virus goes…well…viral…and spreads almost as fast as the new disease itself.  This really gets Alan Krumwiede up in arms (he's played by Jude Law, sporting a very obvious prosthetic tooth device and looking sort of GQ cover boy kooky), seeing as he's an independent blogger that has engaged in a guerrilla campaign of reporting truths and falsehoods regarding the new bug and potential cures.  Doctors and scientists don’t take him seriously; one in particular (played by Elliot Gould) tells him at one point, “Blogging is just graffiti with punctuation!”  Great line. 

As the virus makes its distressing transmission through the world via indirect contact, we are introduced to the other major players that fight against it: There is the CDC deputy director (the increasingly more rotund, but always effective Laurence Fishburne) whose job it is to coordinate a proper response to the public without instilling global panic (although he goes through credibility issues as a result of making selfish choices during the epidemic).  Then there is a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service officer (Kate Winslet) that goes into areas affected and works with the responders to contain the virus.  There is a medical researcher (Jennifer Ehle) that is trying to beat the rapid spread of the disease by finding a cure as soon as possible.  Finally, there is a WHO representative (the always fetching Marion Cotillard) that is tracking the global spread of the disease, while at the same time getting herself involved in a very dicey situation.  While all of these players feebly attempt to contain the virus, the pandemic grows and then panic steps in the form of riots, looting, and all out chaos. 

CONTAGION is at its strongest when it finds terrifying moments during the most redundant of daily activities.  The film opens with a series of juxtaposed images from around the world of seemingly normal people doing ordinary and mundane things, but Soderbergh keenly focuses on the little, subtle things that we all do habitually – touching our faces constantly, even when not aware of it; wiping our noses with our hands and then handling food or shaking other people’s hands; coughing into the air instead of our arms, etc..  What this does is to show how a disease can spread with such a lethal and shockingly casual effectiveness.  Few pandemic films show as much concern for documenting the evolution of its virus like this one does.    

The scope of the film is quite large, with Soderbergh panning from everywhere from Geneva to China to Chicago to Minneapolis with a sure-fire expediency, showing the large-scale consequences of the virus’ impact.  Yet, as stated, there are perhaps too many characters here that are simply not well realized (with the possible exception of Damon’s grieving husband and his tenuous relationship with his teen daughter).  Many story threads are developed and then left frustratingly unresolved (as is the case with Cotillard, who kind of just disappears from the film) whereas others are used more as plot points.  The character of Krumwiede is particularly ill-defined, especially near the film’s conclusion, not to mention that his government-drug-company conspiracy arc seems like it's from a whole other film altogether.  At the end, you are kind of left wondering where this character’s loyalties really lie, seeing as we are left with just a vague impression of what they are. 

Nonetheless, CONTAGION is a solidly mounted, atypically smart, and credibly fearsome thriller that thankfully does not take cues from other similar films by milking lame melodrama and obtrusive action to thrill audience members.  I have read how some critics have described the film as a “slow-burn” of terror, which is apt.  Soderbergh’s slickly assured, but modulated esoteric fingerprints and the virus itself are perhaps the real characters and selling points of CONTAGION, which makes it rise above more run-of-the-mill virus-disaster pictures.    

You may also want to wash your hands multiple times after leaving the theatre, which is also to the film's credit.

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