For many moviegoers, a star-studded film about global disaster means one thing: the chance to watch famous people die. What movies such as 2012 and Armageddon lack in realism, they make up for with the ghoulish spectacle of celebrities bidding farewell to their loved ones or nobly sacrificing themselves to save others.
Contagion is not that kind of disaster movie. While it’s clear why A-listers showed up for this film — the chance to work with director Steven Soderbergh — it would have been just as effective with a cast of unknowns. The only real star of Contagion is the titular virus itself, so, by “effective,” understand this: You will not want to touch your face after seeing this film. You will not want to enter crowded rooms. You may feel a sudden urge to relocate to a plastic bubble, or Antarctica.
In depicting the initially slow, seemingly inexorable progress of a global pandemic, Contagion is so heavy on verisimilitude that, for many, it won’t be enjoyable viewing. But it is compelling. As he did in Traffic (2000), his panoramic view of the illicit drug trade, Soderbergh jumps around the globe to show us a variety of perspectives on the unfolding disaster. Meanwhile, his tone remains as remote and clinical as the titles on the screen that tell us where we are in the history of the virus’ human transmission.
The film opens on “Day 2,” when Gwyneth Paltrow returns from a business trip to Hong Kong feeling under the weather. Less than a week later, her Minnesota family has suffered unspeakable losses, and soon her husband (Matt Damon) and his teenage daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) are holed up in their home, focused on survival.
In a traditional, action-oriented pandemic movie, Damon’s family-man character would also be the Centers for Disease Control’s head honcho tasked with tracking the virus; or he might be the brilliant doctor racing to find a vaccine. He’d bury his grief in his work and kick that pathogen’s ass. In Contagion, however, he’s just what most of us would be in such a situation: powerless, scared and waiting.
The actors who have the “heroic” roles don’t get to grandstand, either. Laurence Fishburne, as the CDC honcho, illustrates the moral dilemmas facing anyone who holds privileged information about a progressing crisis. Kate Winslet, as the official he sends to handle triage and quarantine in Minneapolis, is so tense she almost vibrates; we see (and admire) how she tamps down her personal terror to operate efficiently. And Jennifer Ehle, in her small but key role as the vaccine-seeking doctor, demonstrates that there can be a fine line between heroism and a death wish.
Contagion is a movie about flawed people doing their jobs, and doing them well, under unspeakable conditions. There’s only one real candidate for villain status: Jude Law as a shrill, panic-spreading blogger who claims the virus, like everything else, is somehow linked to the evils of Big Pharma and other corporations. Even he, Soderbergh suggests in a fleeting shot, isn’t entirely wrong; the world’s powers that be bear some responsibility for both enabling and mishandling the crisis. But, if a disaster does nothing else, it separates the true altruists from the opportunists.
The film has so many characters and subplots that Soderbergh inevitably fails to do justice to them all; for instance, the tale of a WHO epidemiologist (Marion Cotillard) in a Chinese village remains frustratingly open ended. A TV miniseries format might have better served Soderbergh’s ambitions than a feature film. But would a major network air a show that developed a scary premise in such painstaking, unyielding detail? Perhaps not, especially since that scary premise is all too plausible.