The most lavishly feel-bad movie of the year, Contagion is Steven Soderbergh’s well-researched, convincing, and courageously bleak drama about a lethal virus threatening to wipe out humanity.
Contagion, though, is not an action film, nor is it a romance, a heroic tale, or even a zombie flick. It’s more of a dramatised documentary, a filmic portrayal of how a viral epidemic would sweep the world, and an examination of just how interconnected and vulnerable the human race is.
The film opens on day two of the soon-to-be-crisis, as Gwyneth Paltrow, returning from a trip to China, exhibits signs of illness. We montage around the world to see others suffering similar symptoms.
Paltrow arrives home, hugs her son, and minutes later, both are dead.
What follows is half an hour of gripping exposition and glorious cinematic expression of the most terrifying real world threat imaginable.
Unfortunately, in an effort to provide a fresh, realistic take, Soderbergh’s film never really finds a central character or hero. We instead follow eight, in a crammed, multi-protagonist storyline.
In this sense, the scriptalmost imitates the virus that drives its plot forward. The film moves from character to character, dispatching certain people with cruel efficiency before moving on to new “hosts” for the story to follow.
The characters combating the deadly virus are scientific minds trained to be as unflinching and efficient as their viral opponent, and so the actors playing them are cold and clinical (a stellar line-up that includes Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Lawrence Fishburne) even in the face of potential Armageddon.
It’s all interesting intellectually, but hard to connect to any particular character on an emotional level. The result is two acts of buildup, but an aching absence of payoff.
In sum, Contagion is a bleak yet realistic case study of a global pandemic, but its impact is lessened by having too many cast members and little attachment from the audience to their fate. Like a mundane flu, Contagion hits us like a hammer but it lacks a big finish, instead petering out with a sniffle.
3 ½ stars