Contagion is a pretty straightforward, humourless movie – in fact, it’s actually kind of depressing. What director Steven Soderbergh (The Informant!, Ocean’s Eleven) has done is deliver a clinical look at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the progression of an infectious disease – from discovery to quarantine to vaccine. Think of it as a realistic alternative to 1995’s much more enjoyable Outbreak.
There’s not much to say really – it’s about as dry as it sounds. To be fair, Soderbergh does manage to make it play less like a documentary and more like a thriller. A little sensationalism goes a long way however, and I can’t help but feel that it would have been a much better cinema-going experience if it had a dash more disaster movie in its genes.
Contagion’s virus is ‘MEV-1’ and it… melts brains? Maybe, I’m not so sure. The movie isn’t clear. We get an idea of the symptoms, which progress to seizures then death, but we never really learn what the virus actually does to the body and how it does it. MEV-1 is just there, acting as a cold, impersonal impetus for the story but really only existing at its periphery. I would have preferred a few more flourishes to the script – make the virus into more of a villain.
Perhaps screenwriter Scott Z. Burns recognised this lack of a central villainous force so decided to add a subplot about a sleazy freelance journalist, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who takes advantage of the panicked people for personal gain. Maybe I’m being cynical, but I wouldn’t be surprised if such exploitation would happen in a real outbreak. While it’s kind of an off-kilter story thread it’s still an entertaining diversion and comes across as a fairly effective case study of human nature.
Human nature. Not just a band but also an important subtext, one that’s explored through a plethora of branching and intertwining plots – some better than others. There’s Matt Damon who, as the loving father, carries much of the film’s emotional heft in trying to protect his daughter after losing his wife and son. Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet are the doctors trying to stop the virus. Marion Cotillard also pops up in a perplexing subplot set in Hong Kong that doesn’t go anywhere and didn’t need to be included. I could go on and on – suffice to say that it’s a veritable ensemble of skilled actors.
There’s no question that Contagion is well executed and, in many ways, fascinating, but I can’t help but feel that I could just as well switch on the Discovery Channel for a similar experience. I found it more interesting than I’d otherwise expect of myself simply because I have a background in health sciences and public health, but even then it failed to encourage little more than an academic interest. When all is said and done Contagion is a thorough exercise in paranoia – you’ll likely come out of it feeling like every cough is an atom bomb and every public restroom is radioactive (which probably isn’t too far from the truth).