(This review was originally published on September 9, 2011 at The Rogers Revue)
We’ve seen plenty of pandemic films before. Varying from big budget successes like “Outbreak”, independent pictures like 2009′s “Carriers” and Danny Boyle’s gruesome vision “28 Days Later”, the possibility of a global health emergency has been explored in movies for decades. It’s no wonder that this fictionally enhanced topic continues to instill fear in a world where diseases like malaria, Ebola and AIDS are still making an enormous impact on our population. In “Contagion”, we are reminded of the most devastating communicable diseases in human history – the plague, Spanish Flu and smallpox – all precursors to HEV-1, the fictional killer virus at large in Steven Soderbergh’s $60 million contribution to the ’what if’ scenario in a massive airborne health crisis.
Admittedly, my initial interest in “Contagion” wasn’t really in the script so much as its appeal to the bevy of Oscar winners I envisioned shuffling off a tour bus to sign on to the project. I was curious about what inspired the story in the first place, especially since it’s not a particularly original subject. Simply enough, Soderbergh was presented with the concept by screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, fresh off their first collaborative effort on “The Informant!” in 2009. With the idea of developing a pandemic story that was grounded in reality rather than science fiction or religion, Soderbergh got involved and the Oscar heavy cast followed.
“Contagion” chronicles the progression of its one central character, a highly contagious airborne virus that kills within 72 hours of exposure, ravaging the human population at an exponential transmission rate – or ‘R-naught’- of two. It has no scientific background, and the origin is being traced frantically by the Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization as the death toll increases rapidly from a handful of infected to millions within weeks.
The film opens abruptly on ‘Day 2′, wasting no time on title or credit sequences to introduce us to Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) who is on her way home to Minneapolis from Hong Kong, on layover in Chicago. She is talking to a man on her cell phone with whom she’s just had an adulterous rendezvous, and is displaying some obvious signs of an illness that she downplays as jet lag. But upon returning home to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and her young son, the symptoms rapidly progress into a seizure as she foams at the mouth and is subsequently hospitalized. Before they have time for a diagnosis, Beth dies, leaving Mitch in shock, and the doctors have no explanation for him. All they know is that it’s not H1N1, meningitis or anything else immediately identifiable. After a bereft Mitch returns home, his stepson succumbs to the same tragic end – a disturbing post-mortem image that will likely haunt your thoughts for days thereafter.
“Contagion” wastes no time with trite exposition, nor does it pause for its character development. For example, one person drops dead on a bus, and another in a hospital, all within the first few minutes of the film as it intertwines examples of everyday behaviors that can transmit disease. A snack bowl at a bar, the button on an elevator, a sneeze; Soderbergh tracks the genesis and progression of the virus through a microscope of controlled madness and hair-raising visual details that are certain to create a few new germaphobes out of its audience. We are introduced to characters strictly on an as-needed basis, and no one is off limits to the virus soon to be named HEV-1.
As we start to realize the magnitude of the disease and its actual mortality rate (it eventually gets reacessed at an R-naught of 3), the eminent Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) helms the CDCs research into the behavior of HEV-1. Fishburne commands a role that could earn him an upgrade from his Oscar nominee status as Cheever compromises his career by alerting his wife to some privileged information. We become immersed in both the technical and emotional aspects of what might happen behind the scenes in a worst case scenario. Challenging alleged misinformation from the CDC is Jude Law, playing a sketchy freelance blogger in San Francisco. As he fervently attempts to expose a conspiracy between the government and pharmaceutical companies, he advertises an effective treatment with an herb called forsythia – but a self serving ulterior motive quickly becomes evident.
Marion Cotillard plays a researcher for the World Health Organization who inadvertently becomes collateral for a potential antibody when she is kidnapped during her investigation in China; unfortunately her Oscar-winning talents are squandered in this role as the contrived side story develops awkwardly and ultimately has nowhere to go. Back in Minneapolis, Mitch, who has learned that he is immune to the virus, struggles to keep his teenage daughter safe from the spread of the infection until an antibody is found; Damon pairs his characters growing paranoia and concern with the believability of an everyday man.
Other than Paltrow, who only covers about three minutes of screen time, the biggest sacrifice is given by Kate Winslet, an epidemic specialist partnering with Fishburne as she investigates the threat and eventually contracts the disease. Perhaps the most crucial performance in the film though is the stoic Dr. Ally Hextall, played by Jennifer Ehle, who righteously steals screen time from the aforementioned Oscar winners as a selfless visionary ensconced in her role at the CDC tirelessly searching for a treatment.
In his mastery of directing multifaceted films like “Traffic”(which earned him an Oscar in 2000) and “Ocean’s 11”, Soderbergh revels in his ability to deconstruct a theme and retell it in fragments with the efficiency of an extended montage. The only quality maybe more intrinsically bound in the chaos of the film than Soderbergh’s quirky direction is the phenomenal trance inducing score by Cliff Martinez, garnishing Soderbergh’s scene-splitting style with an infectious, oddly punchy energy.
“Contagion” is very direct in its composition and manages not to get too haywire or high-minded, avoiding bloated social commentaries and clever allegories though it will likely stir up some controversy in the health community. Soderbergh’s multi-character efforts sometimes feel like they are spread a little thin, but he never forgets what he’s doing, and with the unfortunate exception of Cotillard’s character doesn’t let the story get too far away from him. Regardless, the style of his direction, both concise and compartmentalized, is what makes the film work as an original, nerve rattling vision of a global health catastrophe.