My initial reaction to Contagion upon hearing about the movie basically boiled down to, “it’s Outbreak without the monkey.” Granted, I have not seen Outbreak, but the plots of both movies about a viral epidemic seemed pretty similar. However, given that Steven Soderbergh, the versatile director of the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy and Traffic, was handling the material, I knew that I would be in for a compelling and smart thriller.
Plot Synopsis: Following the sudden appearance of an unknown and fast-spreading virus, the Centers for Disease Control begins working double time to track down everyone known to be infected and contain every possible infected area. As a team of doctors and scientists frantically work to find a vaccine for the deadly disease, we also get to see the perspectives of some civilians and the actions of a rabble-rouser blogger who believes the government is delaying a vaccine for greater profit.
Right off the bat, Soderbergh doesn’t waste any time showing the path of the virus as it jumps from person to person around the world. Close-ups of people coughing, touching each other, and touching other objects (wine glasses, peanut jars at the bar, etc.) ramp up the paranoia quickly, ensuring that the audience is on their toes at all times as we wait for any one of the main characters to contract the infection. For germaphobes, this might be one of the scariest movies ever.
While the movie definitely has a thick air of paranoia and suspense, it feels more like a tense drama thriller than an outright horror movie. It’s also an ensemble piece, where we spend (almost) equal time with a vast amount of characters rather than a single protagonist. One of the issues with the film is that, aside from a couple of characters, we don’t spend enough time to care about most of them. Only Matt Damon’s protective father feels fleshed out enough to feel his plight, and Damon gives an appropriately touching performance.
Despite their one-dimensional characters, the rest of the cast mostly rises above the material. Jude Law and Laurence Fishbourne fare the best, playing a sleazy blogger and determined CDC official respectively. Kate Winslet also does a great job with a character who doesn’t appear much, but establishes a good friendship with Fishbourne during her screen time. Only Marion Cotillard, as a government official kidnapped for her knowledge of the situation, feels unnecessary to the plot and could have easily been cut out of the film.
Cliff Martinez’s unusual music score also does a great job of unsettling the audience and putting them on the edge of their seat. And while Contagion doesn’t do the best job of connecting to its characters, Soderbergh’s approach to the story in combination with the realistic and subtly terrifying plot are enough to recommend the movie to audiences at least once. Just be sure to get some hand sanitizer on the way out of the theater.
3/4 Rating Criteria