Contagion that he is giving everything up and going to live in hiding in a sterile bunker? If so, the film he’ll be leaving behind is a startling if somewhat cold and sterile thriller itself about a deadly virus that threatens to decimate the world’s population. It is a well-made film about the birth of a pandemic caused by Gwyneth Paltrow that spreads like wildfire, and the internet–fueled panic that spreads even faster. As well made as Contagion is, its insistence on being unsentimental and clinical leaves you unmoved by the characters and oddly distanced from caring about them.
Starting in blackness as we hear Minneapolis executive Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) cough before we see her sweaty face and casual touching of bar nuts, her credit card and drink that will soon become carriers of the disease. It is set in an airport, so we know that Beth will soon prove every germaphobe right. Beth has just cheated on her schlubby husband Mitch (Matt Damon) with an old flame, and the wages of sin truly are death in this case. As Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet at the CDC try to assess the threat level, a cocky blogger (Jude Law) blasts raw data out onto the internet with no regard to how it might be received (Wikileaks, anyone?). Jennifer Ehle and Demetri Martin (Taking Woodstock) play CDC doctors desperately trying to isolate the virus and kill it, and Ehle gives the film’s most memorable performance. The one failed character is Marion Cotillard as Dr. Leonora Orantes, a World Health Organization doctor who gets abducted while trying to uncover the virus’ origin. Clearly, we are supposed to be invested in who has kidnapped her and why, but it falls totally flat given the rest of the film’s refusal to indulge in emotion.
The ending of Contagion also feels a little like the anticlimactic end of War of the Worlds without the cheesy Morgan Freeman voice over. Prior to that, Soderbergh does a great job showing how quickly the US collapses into anarchy once the public realizes that not everyone is going to get the cure, if and when it is discovered. One can easily imagine Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachmann telling their Tea Party faithful to storm drug stores and health clinics (especially Women’s Clinics) to “take back America” and save their own sorry skins. Contagion succeeds as a frigid examination of our fragile position on Earth, and the brave people who give their lives trying to save others. The performers are all good, even if they can’t really bust through the wall of ice Soderbergh puts between them and the audience. It is like the freeze-dried version of Outbreak.
Don’t be surprised if you leave Contagion with sweaty palms, shortness of breath, and a healthy case of paranoia.
Reel Thoughts Rating: B-
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.