Directed by: Stephen Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Elliott Gould
Too few disaster movies these days earn the epithet “star-studded”, but Contagion is a nice exception to that trend. And apart from the big names above, supporting roles are filled with a bunch of nice actors of the “Oh, I know that guy/girl, where did I see him/her before” kind.
Also, kudos to director Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns for actually killing off a couple of their A-listers at relatively early points in the plot. That’s also a good ol’ genre tradition that is sadly neglected nowadays.
Contagion starts off with Gwyneth Paltrow as businesswoman Beth Emhoff, who gets infected by an aggressive new virus on a trip to Hong Kong. Stopping over in Chicago to meet her lover, she manages to start a new virus cluster in the Windy City before returning home to her husband (Damon) and son in Minneapolis.
As the virus rapidly starts spreading across the United States (and indeed the world, but the narrative focus is on the American side of the story), Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is drafted by the Dept. of Homeland Security to lead the fight against the epidemic. He in turn dispatches epidemologist Erin Mears (Winslet) to Minneapolis to begin the investigation in the field.
While the effort is underway to try and identify the new virus, as well as coming up with a cure, conspiracy theorist Alan Krumwiede (Law) begins to pester scientists and implies that the virus might in fact be a secret biological weapon. He also begins promoting a homeopatic cure called forsythia, and claims the government is covering up its healing qualities.
Soderbergh intercuts swiftly and deftly between the many characters and multiple plot strands, but the very structure of the film makes it a somewhat cool piece of work. Contagion is more an overarching depiction of what a major pandemic outbreak might do to modern society, than a visceral human drama, giving the film a slightly analytical and distanced feel. Matt Damon’s character is supposed to be the human focus and the guy we identify with, but even that storyline is a little too lean to really engage your feelings. On the other hand, the rapidly spreading panic and society’s descent into chaos with looting and riots are well handled.
The stellar cast does a good job all around, and Soderbergh tells the story efficiently if not excitingly. A competent and watchable but less than thrilling effort.
On a sidenote, I quite enjoyed seeing the inevitable conspiracy theorist treated not as a lone, intrepid truth-seeker (as per usual in the disaster genre) but as a greedy opportunist among others. Had my fill of self-aggrandizing conspiracists lately.