Global pandemics make for captivating science-fiction fodder — especially when the infected turn into raging zombies — but let’s say it was a tad more realistic. Let’s say that H1N1 had been as bad as we were prepared for and people were dying left and right. “Contagion” imagines that scenario through the extensive research of writer Scott Z. Burns, while director Steven Soderbergh shows us in grim fashion what it would look like if it all went down.
“Contagion” plays predominantly as a procedural, though to its credit, it’s not devoid of heart or humanity. The entertainment and strength of the film, however, come from the rhythm and pacing. The story jumps to and from various perspectives in the outbreak from the family of the virus’ first victim trying to weather the storm (Matt Damon and Anna Jacoby-Herron) to the folks at the CDC (Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburne) calling the shots and trying to assess the scale of the outbreak. There’s also an influential blogger (Jude Law), an epidemiologist (Marion Cotillard) and a scientist researching a cure (Jennifer Ehle). To a significant extent, the film relies on its audience’s natural curiosity as to how this epidemic scenario would play out in real life, particularly behind the scenes.
Those who could care less probably will, and “Contagion” will seem rather purposeless. The many side plots offer some unique insights into how we might react in such a situation and put a face and a soul to everything, but admittedly the only thing the film builds toward is whether or not a cure can be found in time to avoid decimation of the human race. And if that were to be the scripted ending, well that would probably dampen the mood a bit.
Pacing is everything in “Contagion.” Soderbergh gets things going right out of the gate, but after the first hour the side plots start to build up and cause it to drag; a fair trade off if you ask me, seeing as if the film got any more scientific it could’ve been a documentary.
In addition to ample movement, Soderbergh lays on the germophobia. Anyone with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder will be set back a few years in therapy after this one. Just wash your hands people. Seriously. The moral of this story doesn’t get much simpler than that.
Nobody puts together a cast quite like Soderbergh. From “Traffic” to “Ocean’s Eleven,” his films have never lacked for names. Although it’s hard to say how necessary they were for a film primarily interested in dazzling the intellect, “Contagion” possesses a greater sense of gravitas as a result. Certainly having big names playing the brains at the top helps you to take them seriously, especially Kate Winslet, who gives the film’s best performance as a person from the CDC charged with figuring out how the disease spread and how it might be contained.
The centerpiece of the film, however, is without a doubt Burns’ meticulous script and Soderbergh’s ability to turn it into a grounded story with strong characters. This writer/director relationship proved fruitful in 2009’s “The Informant!” and delivers again here. Soderbergh has always done great work tackling films that involve substantive editing to make sense and flow properly and they almost always do, this film included. Cliff Martinez, who scored Soderbergh’s first feature, “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” and has worked with him numerous times since, provides that effective modern synth score that does wonders for ratcheting up tension.
What will go most under-appreciated about “Contagion” is the way it reveals the selfish nature of our survival instinct, yet without scolding it. Every surviving character does something in his or her self interest, yet somehow they all play a role in trying to achieve the end goal of global immunization. It’s a nice touch to add the message that just because we tend to look out for number one doesn’t mean we can’t progress together or help other people too.
“Contagion” isn’t the paragon of modern thrillers, but it keeps a firm grip on the audience’s attention. If nothing else, if the Department of Health and Human Services ever needs it, it’s a heck of a film to stir the general public into being more mindful about the spread of disease.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Kate Winslet