Contagion a sharp thriller from writer/director/cinematographer/editor/do-all Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s 11 The Informant!) is like an adaptation of a Michael Crichton novel that never was. The movie quickly sets up its pawns in order to engage you in a game of pandemic chess where the terror comes from science and the humanity comes from your own empathy. Instead of relying on a sci-fi backstory outlandish deaths or large-scale set pieces Soderbergh lets the facts do the talking—and it's scary as hell.
Much like his Oscar-winning film Traffic Soderbergh unfolds the story by weaving in and out between a series of character perspectives: Matt Damon's Mitch who loses his wife to a mysterious virus and strives to protect the rest of his family; Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle members of the Center for Disease Control racing against the clock to find a cure; Kate Winslet's Erin a field agent tracking down the source of the American outbreak; Jude Law's Alan a high-profile blogger searching for the truth behind the disease; and Marion Cotillard's Dr. Orantes another agent hunting for Patient Zero in Hong Kong. While the drama spans globally each characters' quarrels are playing out in a claustrophobic scenario a world in which any person they meet any object they touch can infect them with the life-threatening disease.
Soderbergh doesn't have much time to dive into his characters' backstories but the film's screenwriter Scott Z. Burns carefully constructs each scene to deliver just the right balance of terrifying scientific babble and revealing personal drama. When the virus starts massacring the world population and vandalism riots and societal unrest emerge the thing that makes Contagion click is our interest in the personal stories. Damon as seems to be the case with everything he touches elevates the material being the perfect everyman and our surrogate for the too-plausible-for-comfort scenario. Fishburne too turns what's normally a plot-forwarding government agent role into a man dealing with the weight of his decisions watching citizens of the country drop like flies from his ivory tower. It's heavy stuff but Burns' playful dialogue helps the cast lighten the harrowing mood—only so the movie can pull the carpet from underneath you over and over again.
But in the end Contagion is Soderbergh's show. The director uses every ounce of cinematic artistry to leave us squirming in our seats with a fetishistic approach to shooting the most mundane of objects. The close-up is Soderbergh's weapon of choice honing in on common day objects that we realize are infested with germs (with the effect amplified by a thousand if you catch the movie in IMAX). A door handle a bathroom drier button the human face—Soderbergh lingers as a reminder of his invisible villain: the virus. That's a compliment: the design and photography is striking the purposefully pristine picture quality fills the characters' quest to stay healthy with tension. Composer Cliff Martinez's electronic score compliments the icky scenario germinating over the picture like audible infection. The world of the film is rich with detail. Just the icky kind.
Contagion isn't flawless. With so much going on things fall to the wayside—Cotillard's plotline specifically gets lost in the shuffle—but the reality keeps us engrossed. The movie plays like an oral history of a horrific event with each detail frighteningly exposed. Except in the case of Contagion it's not an event that has happened so much as one that could happen.
And at any moment.
As Contagion exemplifies, the standard stages of grief are slightly different when it comes to lethal pandemics. Sure, there are some of the basic aspects: denial, anger, excessive blogging... but you can expect Steven Soderbergh's upcoming all-too-realistic outbreak movie to deliver some pretty extreme reactions to a pretty extreme circumstance.
The film opens September 9—but don't go in without a vaccination! Build up your immunity, and get your safe dose of Contagion here. And then jump into the fire.
We start off, of course, with Matt Damon—people like him are often unaccustomed to tragedy, so he finds it incredibly hard to grasp that his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) isn't taking the whole virus outbreak thing very well.
And in steps the paranoia. Two intellectuals deliberate the situation at hand, one (Marion Cotillard) with a particularly heavy European accent, so we know we can trust her. Her colleague (Tien You Chui) has begun to pay credence to certain internet rumors that America is holding out on its populace in terms of a cure-tagion.
Ah, the epic battle: the press vs. anyone else. Jude Law has got a SickiLeaks thing going on here, and he's attacking Dr. Elliott Gould for info. The peaceable, approachable doc attempts to reason with the scathing, unwavering Law (that is not a political statement), but it seems as though the latter will not be putting on the breaks until this situ-tagion is at bay.
And the spread begins. It seems as though Paltrow has passed on her ailment to a man who has such a propensity for touching poles, they might as well have cast Tony Shalhoub! That joke is very unlikely to land. In any event, this scene is one worthy of shuddering predictions. It's also our first glimpse of Kate Winslet, so, at least there's some happy news.
The battle begins. Law takes on Laurence Fishburne, which, if he's ever seen any movie, he should know is a bad idea. Politics flare up in this outbreak film in a way they likely would in real life: hostilely. Trust is slimming. Stakes are raising. Fish are burning.
And, wouldn't you know it—the I Am Legend arc. A man immune. A man who has lost everything important to him is forced to live this hell out perpetually. To watch the world crumble as he and his haircut remain in tact. If that ain't the definition of 'contagion,' I don't know what is.