Stars: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Ehle
An action-thriller centered on the threat posed by a deadly disease and an international team of doctors contracted by the CDC to deal with the outbreak.
It's something like an anti-thriller, and depending on how far your taste in the unique versus high-adrenaline entertainment will take you will determine how much you actually like Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion."
You have undoubtedly heard the story before. Person A (Gwyneth Paltrow) gets sick and falls into a coma or dies. Then persons B, C, D who briefly came in contact with Person A, get sick and die, too. Before you know it, persons one million through one billion have caught the disease, martial law is declared, civilization itself is on the verge of falling apart and the end of human life on Earth is nigh.
This is not that. Or rather, it is, but not in the conventional form audiences are used to. The cataclysmic nature of these kinds of films, combined with the way it could quote-unquote 'actually happen,' makes it easy for melodrama and operatic tendencies to come to the fore. Usually in the form of a doctor or the like looking on helplessly as stuff explodes around them. Soderbergh is having none of that.
"Contagion's" goal is to look at the human response to the onset of one of these film-friendly super bugs in a realistic manner. Some of that response means reaction to the deaths and eventual devastation, but Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns ("The Informant!") never forget it also means actual response. And they refuse to fall into the trap of having characters over react or have technology break down just at the moment when it could do the most damage in order to advance their plot.
Instead they have thrown their net very, very wide. Some of the characters are everyday people who happen to be immune (Matt Damon) and have to deal with watching their loved ones die. Some are the doctors (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, and Jennifer Ehle) charged with figuring out and fighting the disease. There are even some fear mongers (Jude Law) out to spread their native paranoia and make a buck doing it. But always with a foot firmly rooted in the real. "Contagion" is a movie about the spectacular, just without spectacle.
That is obviously not going to work for everyone. "Contagion" often times comes off as the docudrama it is attempting to emulate. To an extent this is a good thing; similar to the rule that a realistic amount of blood is actually more disturbing than a gushing fountain of blood, a realistic death from disease is more disturbing than an overdone piece of Hollywood make-up. "Contagion" benefits from that portion of its sensibility, especially once rows of body bags begin to be matter-of-factly buried in mass graves or the family next door gets shot and killed in the night.
On the other hand it also means those looking for soap opera and melodrama are going to spend a lot of time watching doctor's working professionally to treat the disease and spewing out copious amounts of technical dialog in the process. It's good, but not exactly thrilling entertainment.
In fact, the only person who remotely fits the classic mold of virus-thriller characters is Law's Krumwiede, the person you should probably trust the least. He, and the kinds of films he represents, are counterpointed at every turn by the quietly professional doctor's trying to find a cure without causing a panic, and none more so than Ehle's self-assured CDC virologist. She gives no speeches, has no tearful breakdowns even when comforting her sick father, she just goes about her business doing what needs to be done. Fishburne and Winslet are also excellent as among the strongest corner stones of the film, particularly Fishburne as a sort of global father figure trying to keep everything together but always responding to events as a human being.
The wide net Soderbergh is using unfortunately comes back to bite him here as well. With so a large cast spread over the entire world most of the parts are little more than cameos with actors popping up in one scene roles just to do them. For the most this is fine but on occasion characters that are integral to the climax and dénouement of the story vanish for extended periods of time. Cotillard in particular disappears after the first act and stays gone for nearly an hour. It is more than occasionally distracting.
Like a lot of Soderbergh's jabs at traditional Hollywood filmmaking, "Contagion" hits and misses. It has the quality of genuinely trying to do things differently. Different doesn't always mean good, however, and how far "Contagion" will work for you will depend greatly on your taste for realism over manufactured drama. It is slow, and not for everyone, but for those willing to experiment there is an excellent thriller inside at least trying to be about people and those don't come along too often.
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