Steven Soderbergh started off the new millennium with the Oscar-winning film Traffic, a broad and sweeping look at the so-called "war on drugs," told through the interconnected stories of an ensemble cast of characters. With his latest film, Contagion, Soderbergh applies his Traffic formula to the battle against a deadly pandemic that is loosed upon mankind.
However, where Traffic provided a fresh (and necessary) bigger picture look at a subject many had a narrow view of, Contagion faces the challenge of having to distinguish itself from an overcrowded lane of similar movies that have already dealt with the threat, and resounding effects, of mass epidemic.
So, does Soderbergh - along with his cast of well-regarded actors - manage to rise to the challenge of turning something so familiar into something fresh and interesting? In terms of technique and style, the answer is yes; however, in terms of heart and emotion, Contagion is not as potent as one might hope.
The film plays like a connect-the-dots game of viral infection. The outbreak begins with some ill-fated world travelers, including Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), a businesswoman who returns home to Midwest America and spreads the deadly disease to the local population. What ensues thereafter is a literal connect-the-dots game, as The World Health Organization and Center for Disease Control send their best scientific minds (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard and Jennifer Ehle) to track the disease back to its origin, contain its spread, and develop a vaccine. But this new force of nature isn't the only problem the doctors must contend with: there are still plenty forces of man - panic, politics - that are just as dangerous as the virus itself.
Contagion is yet another good example of Soderbergh's capacity to fit a lot of smaller puzzle pieces together into a distinct bigger picture. Terms like "The War on Drugs" or "Race For a Cure" are worn-out slogans in our day and age, but truly cataloging all of the lives and experiences encompassed in those slogans is a challenging task for anyone's imagination. To his credit, Soderbergh explores the spread and effect of disease in a way that is certainly interesting and stylish - but also cold, calculating, and numbingly clinical.
A virus has no emotion. It infects, replicates, kills, mutates, and continues to infect without discrimination or prejudice. Despite the swollen cast of characters populating Scott Z. Burns' (The Bourne Ultimatum) script, on a tonal level, Contagion imitates the virus that drives its plot forward. The film moves from character to character, dispatching certain people with cruel efficiency before moving on to new "hosts" for the story to follow. The characters combating the deadly virus (the aforementioned doctors) are scientific minds trained to be as unflinching and efficient as their viral opponent, and so the actors playing them are cold and clinical, even in the face of potential Armageddon. It's all interesting on an intellectual level, but hard to connect to any particular character on an emotional level.
Even characters who are given more dramatic arcs - Matt Damon as a traumatized overbearing father, or Jude Law as a controversial Internet blogger - are portrayed with stunted emotion and/or calculating logic. Every character choice and motivation seems mechanically formulaic (If "A" occurs, proceed to do "B"), and for a film that totes the tagline "Nothing Spreads Like Fear," Contagion is quite sterile (from its tone to its crisp digital shots) and fails to capture the sheer emotion of such a terrible situation. There are some chilling and/or heartfelt moments that occur here and there, but these are ultimately fleeting, as Soderbergh and Burns are clearly more concerned with mapping out their larger blueprint.
The most stirring trick the movie employs is actually a stylistic one: time and again we get "virus POV" shots of random objects (glasses, door handles, subway poles, etc.) which detail - in truly unnerving fashion - just how vulnerable we are to infection in our everday lives. This "virus POV" effect is cool, stirring, and will definitely leave you feeling slightly more germaphobic than when you entered the theater (or even about being in a movie theater - how meta!); it also serves the purpose of being the through-line by which all the dots are connected, as the virus is ultimately traced back to its tragic (and preventable) origins. For those who are good at connect-the-dots games: Contagion contains a distinct messages in its chronicling of how this virus came to be, and how small and connected the world truly is. These will likely be divisive messages for some, given the world we live in today, so keep your eyes on how all the pieces fit together, and what the big picture is actually depicting.
In the end, Contagion is like spending a Saturday morning in biology class: sure, you'll learn a worthwhile or interesting thing or two, but you'll also wish you were doing something much more fun with your time. For those curious about the biological precipice upon which our species exists, and those who work tirelessly to keep us from falling over it - this film has plenty of insight into that world. For those hoping to see a more traditional dramatic thriller: this film won't be the cure you're looking for.
If you're still on the fence about seeing Contagion, check out the trailer. When you've seen the movie for yourself, let us know how you rate it in our poll below:
Contagion is now playing in regular and IMAX theaters everywhere.