Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
If you’ve never really given any thought to the perils of shaking hands with strangers or sipping from glasses in restaurants or having a friend blow on some dice for you while gambling, then Contagion should prove to be a startling and eye-opening experience for you on so many levels once the film hits theaters in the US next week.
More of a subtle pandemic approach than films like Outbreak or 28 Days Later, director Steven Soderbergh’s foray into the disaster movie subgenre manages to deliver a terrifying plausible concept that will no doubt leave audiences yearning for some hand sanitizer once the credits begin rolling and second guessing whether or not the guy coughing two rows behind them sounded serious enough or not.
Contagion starts off briskly, introducing us to Beth (Paltrow) as she plans to return to her husband, Mitch (Damon), from a business trip from Hong Kong and is suffering from what she suspects is a bit of jet lag. What Beth is unaware of is that she’s been infected with an unknown virus while overseas, and just like they show you in those diagrams in high school health class- one person can spread something to many people, even if they’ve never met in person.
We soon learn that people all over the world have been infected with the same mystery virus Beth contracted and are now unknowingly spreading it to anyone they come in contact with: a Ukrainian model in London, a Japanese businessman, a young man back in Hong Kong; and that’s how the landslide of viral infection begins worldwide.
When Beth is rushed to the hospital and dies suddenly only a few short days after her return home, both the hospital doctors and Mitch are absolutely in the dark as to what could have possibly caused a healthy woman in her 30s to drop dead so swiftly.
After an autopsy (kudos to Soderbergh for pulling off one of the most subtly creepy scenes of the year- Paltrow’s head flap during an autopsy!), doctors discover that what killed Beth (and others worldwide) is unlike anything that’s ever been seen before; and that’s when we’re introduced to those desperately trying to stop it from becoming a global pandemic, including those in the medical field (Fishburne, Winslet, Cotillard, Ehle, Gould), government officials (Cranston, Colantoni), as well as a number of other ‘regular folks’ who give us a more relatable view of the disaster unfolding around them, including Damon’s character of Mitch, who quietly watches as society implodes in Minnesota while trying to keep his teenage daughter safe, and Law as a whistle-blowing blogger in San Francisco that thinks he may have a holistic cure for the new virus.
As the virus continues to spread around the globe, it’s now a race against time for our cast to trace its path in order to develop a cure before what’s left of our now rapidly dwindling society has a chance to destroy itself.
In many ways Contagion is Soderbergh’s answer to modern disaster movies by the likes of filmmakers such as Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, Independence Day) or both Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer (Armageddon). But rather than create an overblown, effects-laden blockbuster to tell his story, Soderbergh relies on his all-star cast to keep his story realistically chilling, and that’s what makes the movie ultimately work.
Don’t get me wrong; Contagion is definitely a movie that’s both huge in scope and scale, but as a storyteller Soderbergh taps right into our paranoia and uses that to keep us engaged throughout the film. After recent real-life outbreaks of viruses like Bird Flu, H1N1 and SARS, it’s not hard to imagine that things in reality might actually play out like they do in writer Scott Z. Burns’ Contagion.
A lot of people may argue that there’s a lot of talent assembled but subsequently wasted in Contagion because we end up following so many characters throughout the film that none of them ever quite gets a chance to step out and make a huge impression on us. But the thing to keep in mind with Contagion is that Burns’ story is crafted in such a way that the virus essentially becomes the film’s central character, leaving everyone else- which also includes playing down the star power of A-listers like Damon, Fishburne, Winslet and Paltrow- as secondary characters.
Not that Burns’ characters are written poorly or anything; it’s just that Soderbergh’s storytelling approach is fast and slick, which creates a lot of quick back and forth that spans globally, and Soderbergh’s approach serves the story well even if we get a little shortchanged on some of the characters along the way.
And even if no one in the cast clocks a huge amount of running time in Contagion, I will say that there really isn’t a truly bad performance in the entire flick. Damon and Fishburne use their screen time wisely, and both left a strong impression on me. Law was downright deliciously unlikable (I think he’s the only actor that can get away with playing these dickish roles where I still end up liking him at the end), and I couldn’t help but girl-crush a bit on Winslet’s frazzled CDC neophyte Dr. Erin Mears, too.
There is one actor in Contagion that I would say stands above the rest of the ensemble, and that is the up-and-coming (or at least up-and-coming in the US) Ehle, a veteran British actress who’s suddenly popped on Hollywood’s radar since her performance in last year’s The King’s Speech and deservingly so.
As Dr. Ally Haxtall, it’s Ehle’s character that passionately leads the CDC’s search for a vaccine to the virus, and the actress masterfully finds a way to both balance her character’s intensely overdriven tendencies and give her a subtle warmth that hints at what drives her during a scene with her ailing father that will no doubt leave you a little choked up (if you have any kind of a heart, that is).
Contagion is an intensely smart and grown-up horror flick that feels like a rarity within the genre these days. It’s Soderbergh’s masterful marriage between a fast-pace editing style and a slow-burn storytelling approach that makes Contagion my favorite film of his since Ocean’s Eleven and proves that if Soderbergh is indeed retiring as a filmmaker soon, he has no intentions of letting his career go out with a whimper.
Grab your face masks, slather on the Purell and get ready for Soderbergh’s highly infectious Contagion once it hits theaters on September 9th.
4 out of 5