At first glance, Contagion might feel rather redundant. Killer plague movies have been done plenty. But I’d say you’ve never seen one like this, done this well. What separates this film from others in the genre is the simple, yet surprisingly unconventional, pursuit of realism. Often, these films wipe out 99% of the human race. Contagion shows you that 1% can be just as terrifying. So, while you won’t see Dustin Hoffman single-handedly save the planet and you won’t see the entire populace fleeing the undead, you will still be thrilled and scared shitless, albeit by something as innocuous as a bowl of nuts.
The film wastes no time in setting up the impending pandemic. We begin on Day 2, with several people from different highly populated cities already unknowingly infected. Before anyone has any idea a new virus exists, it has already spread to thousands. From there, we follow the path of the flu-like virus from several perspectives.
There are the scientists working for the CDC: one in the field (Kate Winslet), one in the lab (Jennifer Ehle), and one in charge, dealing with the political wrangling (Laurence Fishburne). There is the husband of patient zero, simply trying to survive the escalating threat (Matt Damon), the WHO epidemiologist working to trace the origin of the virus (Marion Cotillard), and most interestingly, the muckraking blogger (Jude Law).
The acting is aces all around, including smaller contributions from the likes of Elliot Gould, Bryan Cranston, John Hawkes and Gwyneth Paltrow. Jude Law is the standout for me. With his snaggletooth and delusions of grandeur, Law reminds you why he was a breakout star a decade ago. It does help to have such a high level of acting talent because the film is not very emotional. The focus is the virus, so the actors have to really draw you in with very little of our investment. This isn’t a flaw in the film, but the approach to the material. Clinical. Studious. What would transpire if this really happened?
The answers to this question are well researched and dramatically presented. Without embellishment, director Steven Soderbergh achieves many levels of terror. The unknown quality of the virus, the ease with which it spreads, the speed at which it spreads, and the escalation of chaos within society are all equally frightening points highlighted. The horror is grounded with some great commentary about humanity coming together when they should be staying apart (literally), and ideas about the realities of bureaucracy and global responsibility.
Of course, Soderbergh has always been fascinated with processes. Be it how to rob a casino or how to start a revolution, the director is exacting in his scrutiny of how to get from A to B. Some might find this too calculating, but I think when applied in a narrative as cinematic as this, it works great. The Social Network-like score by Cliff Martinez also helps, as does the formalistic cinematography done by Soderbergh himself. (I think Soderbergh is one of the most underrated DPs, I wonder why?).
The last 30 minutes might feel a little anti-climatic, but it is keeping with the verisimilitude. Plus, it offers its own complications and drama. My only other complaint is: the Marion Cotillard character arc feels like it is missing a beat or two, and maybe could have been expanded a smidge or excised altogether. Otherwise, prepare for Howie Mandel’s worst nightmare.