With its dire scenario, all-star cast and multithreaded plot, Contagion resembles 1970s disaster flicks like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (Henry Fonda as The Scientist! Helen Hayes as The Stowaway!). But those trashy old movies are enjoyable as camp and not much else. Contagion is a thoughtful, subtle film, a look at the global devastation wrought by a deadly virus people pick up from handshakes and subway rails.
There are chilling sights and alarming scenarios. In American cities, looters ransack stores as civil order breaks down. A public health official is held for ransom. A dead boy lies in bed, face pale, lips crusted. To his credit, though, director Steven Soderbergh doesn't just go for thrills. He tells this tale slowly and deliberately - perhaps too deliberately for some tastes. At the preview screening I attended, a few people walked out early.
As the film begins, the screen is dark. There is the sound of coughing. Then we see businesswoman Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) in an airport. She looks sick. A disorienting title flashes on the screen: Day 2. What happened on Day 1? Stay tuned.
A little later, in her Minneapolis home, Beth collapses. Soon she dies, along with her young son. At the hospital, her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), nods thoughtfully as the doctor shares the horrible news. Then Mitch goes through some of the stages of grief - denial, anger - in just a few seconds. It's a well-observed bit of acting from Damon, who brings nuance to this performance even as he swaps screen time with at least 10 other major characters.
The head of the Centers for Disease Control (Laurence Fishburne) coordinates the federal response and, in a panicked moment, proves not to be a wholly public-minded civil servant. A CDC doctor (Kate Winslet) meets with alarmed bureaucrats and sets up an infirmary in a cavernous armory. In Hong Kong, a World Health Organization representative (Marion Cotillard) meets unexpected resistance. A scientist (Jennifer Ehle) urgently seeks a vaccine. A flamboyant blogger (Jude Law) tries to discredit the government and promotes a homeopathic remedy. These stories are told in quickly alternating scenes.
This is a really unsettling film, and it plays to some of our starkest fears. The SARS and H1N1 outbreaks, discussed in Contagion, sparked global panic. Another common source of dread is tapped when grim-faced military leaders wonder whether malevolent people started the epidemic deliberately. The film is curious about how a wide array of people might act in the face of catastrophe. There is heroism, but also greed, duplicity, preening.
Kudos to Soderbergh, who challenges audiences with difficult films like Che and The Girlfriend Experience even as he entertains them with glossier entertainments like Erin Brockovich. I'd say Contagion falls somewhere in between. It's a disaster movie with a brain.