After returning home from a business trip to Hong Kong, a married woman develops a rapidly worsening cold that presents as the flu. Within a few days that woman, Beth Emhoff, is dead and her 6-year old son is suffering from the same symptoms. Around the world, a handful of similar deaths have been reported and many more people are sick. The Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) are monitoring the situation and by Day 4, more have died, thousands are sick, and by the end of a week’s time, the infected are numbering millions, the deaths are escalating at an alarming rate and countries around the world and numerous locations within the United States have reported outbreaks of distinct proportions.
This is the landscape that Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” exists in and the landscape is a frightening one to consider. As Soderbergh weaves in and out of a substantial number of characters and storylines, you simply cannot help but start to wonder in your own mind how likely a scenario “Contagion” is presenting. And as riveted as you may be, you certainly do not want to cough, sneeze, or sniffle. Or share anything. Or touch anyone.
If I being facetious, I apologize. However, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant!) have concocted a pretty effective film that features a veritable Who’s-Who of the best Hollywood has to offer, perhaps making this initially appear to be nothing more than a 2011 version of those 1970s disaster films featuring stunt casting and big name stars slumming for paychecks. I am thrilled to share with you that “Contagion” is not a B-movie level event, the acting is top notch, Soderbergh moves the story along efficiently, and Burns’ script looks and feels scientifically accurate enough to make you restlessly uncomfortable.
As Mitch Emhoff, Matt Damon is a cornerstone to the film as he is not only dealing with the tragic and sudden loss of his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and onset illness of his 6-year old stepson, Clark (Griffin Kane), but his teenage daughter (Anna-Jacoby-Heron) might be susceptible as well. Damon serves largely as the film’s main focal point, as Soderbergh and Burns return to Minnesota, the state where the Emhoffs live and a quasi-Ground Zero of sorts for the stateside outbreak.
One by one, big name Oscar winning and Oscar nominated actors arrive. Laurence Fishburne serves as another de facto lead in the film, playing Dr. Ellis Cheever, the Deputy head of the CDC, who is desperately trying to manage and contain a volatile and escalating crisis. Kate Winslet shines in her scenes as Dr. Erin Mears, an expert on viruses that Cheever brings in to analyze and investigate the developments. Jude Law gets a fair amount of screen time as blogger Alan Krumweide, whose conspiracy theory website, Truth-Serum, gets a meteoric rise in popularity when Krumweide calls into question the actions taken by the CDC and the United States government. Marion Cotillard plays a World Health Organization investigator who flies to the Far East to survey the infected and Jennifer Ehle is quite terrific as a scientist who may have found a vaccine that may ultimately lead to a cure.
Other small roles are given to John Hawkes, Sanaa Lathan, Bryan Cranston, Demetri Martin, and the fantastic Elliot Gould, but to Soderbergh’s credit, “Contagion” strides along at such an uncompromising gait, that the celebrity-gawking takes a rather immediate backseat to the proceedings unfolding before us. And we should not be surprised with Steven Soderbergh at the helm, because once again he proves how adept he is at handling multiple arcs while encumbered with a robust ensemble.
Which is not to say the film is not lacking in certain respects. Cotillard’s story for example, which incorporates a desperate researcher and a village of children, is left out of the mix for such a long stretch of time that when Cotillard reappears, I completely forgot she was in the film at all. Jude Law’s character and successive actions may be relevant and topical, especially when considering the stroke and credibility bloggers and/or Web-based journalists receive in today’s 24-hour cable television news cycle. But Scott Burns’ never seals the deal with Law’s character, especially after a terrific interplay between Law and Fishburne and CNN’s medical expert Dr. Sanjay Gupta. An intriguing realization involving Mitch’s reaction to the virus is also relegated to nothing more than a couple of mere mentions. I rarely ask for a film to extend its length, but perhaps these characters, so crucial to the story, could have had a few more minutes to flesh out their purpose. Losing focus on them and their seemingly important connectivity to the overall story, diffuses the ultimate effect that “Contagion” hopes to impact upon its viewers.
“Contagion” is a bubbling and bustling thriller, which takes us through 130+ days of how devastating and ill prepared we might ultimately be for the next global pandemic. The film whisks you from locale to locale and Soderbergh slyly and, at other times, rather jarringly reminds us that dangers likely lurk all around us. With strong, serious acting that never finds a false note, a liberal dose of unsettling and disturbing visuals, a vibrant pulsing score by Cliff Martinez, and skillful editing by Stephen Mirrione, “Contagion” may ultimately serve as more of an entertaining film than a thought-provoking one, but then again…gauge your own reaction when someone sneezes or coughs near you after seeing this film.