Rating: ****/*****, or 7/10
Starring: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
USA: Warner Bros., 2011
Steven Soderbergh's cautionary tale about the dangerous reality that is (and/or could be) a deadly global pandemic and its disastrous effects of human society and sense of morality proves an often harrowing but ultimately overly clinical film. Gwyneth Paltrow returns home from a business trip (which included some secret bedding out of wedlock) and is struck by seizures. Her husband Matt Damon rushes her to a hospital where she soon dies, much to everybody's shock and surprise. Her demise is only the beginning, as the disease that killed her – a fictional form (fortunately!) of meningoencephalitis – soon manifests itself all over the globe. The social order starts to break down everywhere as governments are unable to cope with the sudden onslaught that plagues their citizens. Experts from the CDC and WHO attempt to find a cure and to locate the origin of the outbreak but are hindered by problems as diverse as boundaries in their professional ethics, conspiracy bloggers inciting public revolt against the rule of law for their own profit, and the overall fear and hopelessness that drives people to extremes they would otherwise never consider, just to survive another day. The result is a carefully woven mosaic of various plot lines that never merge but end up making for an excellently rounded structure as a whole in terms of exploring the nature of the virus, its effects on global society and the race for ending its reign of terror. Though credit has to be given to Soderbergh and his team for keeping this narrative as close to reality as possible, both for chilling us to the bone and for the benefit of our education, it's hard to deny the film's occasional uneven pace and its constant need for overexplaining the more technical situations portrayed, even though it's tremendously helpful in understanding the motions of science in hazardous scenarios like these, and provides some always welcome intellectual uplifting of the audience in general. At times it feels a documentary would have better suited this topic (and no doubt some have). An all-star cast is brought on board to demonstrate how swiftly a lethal, worldwide viral outbreak makes an end to everyday life and in some instances, human values we claim to hold dear until circumstances prove us otherwise.
Though convincing performances are found throughout, in hindsight it would have been more apt to have these characters be played by less known talents to increase the level of realism Contagion aims for. Though the likes of Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne and Jude Law are undoubtedly just as susceptible to nasty diseases as the rest of us (unless fortune really is a cure for every illness), their struggle against the horrible infliction in question doesn't feel as grounded in reality as it ought to because of the high level of internationally familiar faces and the lack of “normal people” in major roles throughout the whole. The movie's overall style is rather cold and detached, a tone many spectators would expect a scientifically accurate story to convey, while the human element is relegated to the background a little too much. Soderbergh focuses on the microcosm of things, so scenes of mass panic and rampant lawlessness are absent though they are referred to abundantly, which doesn't make the concerns addressed in this film feel as immediate and as serious as we are meant to experience them. Contagion is a fine attempt at explaining in a scientifically correct sense what very well could (and most likely would) transpire if it came down to a global pandemic of this magnitude – the death toll at the end of the film reaches 26 million people – but its reliance on letting science determine the course of the film doesn't make for as compelling and intense a drama as it should have been.