Back in the ‘70s when movies like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure were huge, people gathered in droves to watch their favorite actors brave calamities of epic proportions, be it a raging fire, a ground-shattering earthquake or even a killer swarm of hyper-intelligent bees.
These days, we like our sweeping emergencies a little classier and a little more every-day terrifying. Thankfully, Steven Soderbergh has stepped up to the plate to re-ignite the country’s fervor for star-studded disaster movies, one sneeze and unwashed handshake at a time.
Based on a script by Scott Z. Burns, Contagion begins without prologue or explanation on ‘Day Two’ of a fatal viral outbreak that originates in Macao and rapidly makes its way through Asia, Europe and the United States via casual contact. The Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization immediately deploy disease experts and scientists to identify the virus and a possible vaccination, but it’s spreading so wildly and mutating so quickly they always seem to be one step behind.
As thousands die, a counter-culture journalist takes to the internet to call out the public agencies on their failure to stop the sickness, stoking the fires of public outrage and fear, causing large cities to turn into virtual war zones.
The cast is packed to the brim with famous names but the film has no one big star – the actors are all absorbed by a flowing narrative that places them in the same boat as the rest of the faceless masses wondering when the virus is going to come for them.
The massive cast list is an embarrassment of riches: Laurence Fishburne plays a CDC bigwig who gets caught up in a scandal when he allows his fiancée to escape a city about to be quarantined; Kate Winslet is a tireless case officer who puts herself right in the line of fire.
Jennifer Ehle and Elliott Gould are scientists working round the clock to discover a cure; Matt Damon is a vigilant father who’s immune to the virus; Marion Cotillard is a WHO investigator tracking patient zero; Jude Law plays a snaggle-toothed reporter who’s determined to get the truth out.
None of these big names are immune, everyone is expendable. It’s set up very early in the film that any one of these people can disappear in a blink, many times with nothing more than a subtle nod to their death. It’s a great way to keep you on the edge of your seat, knowing that against an epidemic like this, there’s no one hero who will save the day.
The film is skilfully paced, employing a chilly approach that strips the disaster genre of its usual soap opera-like melodrama, while still exploring the smaller ways this particularly insidious virus affects the way a regular guy like Damon protects his remaining family members or how self-righteous journalist like Law uses the internet to spread panic like an epidemic of its own.
Narratives like this can be gripping moment to moment but the lack of detail in the characters begins to wear thin as the story progresses. Unlike Soderbergh’s other major multi-narrative film Traffic, this film often skimps on giving many members of its heavyweight cast suitably rich material to explore.
The actors, as good as they are, are often just there to make technical terms like R-naught and talking points like H1N1 and terrorism threats palatable to moviegoers. It may be important to the story but it’s also not the strongest way to showcase their skills or connect the audience to their characters.
Contagion may be a case of feverishly good filmmaking (and an excellent, if slightly more high brow, addition to the disaster movie genre), but ultimately it will leave you with little besides an admiration for Soderbergh’s artistry and possibly a desire to stop on the way home for some hand sanitizer, just in case.