Directed by: Steven Soderbergh | 106 minutes | action, thriller, science fiction | Actors: Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Ehle, Sanaa Lathan, John Hawkes, Elliott Gould, Natalie Gal, Jillian Armenante, Demetri Martin, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Chin Han Amr Waked, Josie Ho, Rebecca Spence, Sarab Kamoo, Armin Rohde, Debbi Burns, Dave McNulty, Thomas Kosik
Even for those who know nothing about ‘Contagion’ and for whom the title does not ring a bell, it is very clear what the film is about. While the screen is still black in the beginning, we hear someone coughing persistently. It’s about Beth Emhoff, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who actually already looks like a wreck at the time – was she even in make-up for this scene at all? In any case, it is by no means a harbinger of a good laugh film.
Viewers who have followed Steven Soderbergh’s work over the years know that his films steer between smooth, stylized entertainment and heavier, engaged fare. It should be clear that ‘Contagion’ falls into the latter category, more reminiscent of Oscar winner ‘Traffic’ than of ‘Ocean’s Eleven’. Despite the laundry list of movie stars (populated in addition to Paltrow by the likes of Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Matt Damon and Jude Law), the film remains ice cold and very sober in style, with faded colors and sterile interiors.
The plot can be summarized as the epidemic outbreak of a life-threatening virus, which is highly contagious and kills almost everyone it touches within days. Soderbergh plays with this cleverly: every person we see in the beginning zooms in on the objects they touch. A bowl of nuts, a credit card, a railing in a bus, everything becomes a murder weapon in the blink of an eye. You could almost get a fear of contamination.
It is a virus that no one has seen before, which means it will take some time before a working vaccine can be tinkered with and the worldwide death toll is rising rapidly. Result: panic, despair, looting of shops selling food and medicines and a manic search for every possible remedy.
‘Contagion’ is very fragmentary due to all those characters, (sub)plotlines and locations. It’s almost too much to list. Probably the most compelling battle, however, is between the US government agency CDC, headed by Dr. Cheever (Fishburne), and the raucous blogger-cum-freelance journalist Alan Krumwiede (a remarkably grumpy Jude Law). While the CDC tries as accurately as possible to find a vaccine on a scientific basis and to rein in public opinion, which takes quite a lot of time, Krumwiede shouts from the digital rooftops that it is a cover-up of the pharmaceutical industry for monetary gain. . He also claims to have cured himself of the virus with a homeopathic remedy.
It is interesting how various modern developments are referred to. First of all, the comparison with the much more limited outbreak of N1H1 is obvious, which has made many question the sincerity of all the alarming stories and effectiveness of the distributed vaccines. The panic that erupts in ‘Contagion’ is somewhat reminiscent of the street riots in England, although given its recent nature, it was impossible for it to serve as an inspiration for the film. The chaos after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 is a more logical reference point in that regard. Also interesting is how Soderbergh, who is in his 50s herself, portrays a paranoid blogger whose claims are reminiscent of the preposterous conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11. This Krumwiede is clearly the villain, while the government employees come off as much more sympathetic, although they also appear to push the limits of decency. ‘Contagion’ unequivocally calls for vigilance about the information we take in in such a crisis situation and seems not very positive about the direction our information is taking, with many competing media but little room for fact-checking.
The shape of the film is perfect for this. The fragmentary, variegated set-up of the film makes the panic, confusion and time pressure that overtake the characters very palpable for the viewer. You are not allowed a moment of rest or even a moment of reflection. Everywhere in the world there is almost literally a mess. All this is also aided by the mercilessly ticking count of days since the outbreak of the disease. Every few minutes of film we are days further and there are hordes of new victims. Entire economies come to a standstill, streets and public buildings are extinct.
It is very clever how Soderbergh still manages to involve you strongly in that drama: throughout the film, the victims are reduced to abstract numbers and body bags flashing by, deaths who get few moments of reflection. When ‘Contagion’ actually zooms in on the personal suffering caused by such an outbreak of a disease, it is all the more effective. You realize that each of those deaths is a horrific drama in itself. Only then does the tragedy take on a face, and you as a viewer are almost ashamed that you have caused so much less excitement because of the ever-increasing death toll. In passing, we also very subtly get to see the most likely cause of the worldwide contagion – although that point is unfortunately very clearly rammed in later for the less quick-witted. That wasn’t really necessary.
Steven Soderbergh has indicated that he plans to stop making films soon, once he has completed his current projects. Not all of his films have been equally brilliant, but ‘Contagion’ shows that a Soderbergh in form is a top-shelf filmmaker. We’re going to miss him.