A virus can be a terrifying thing. Much more so than, say, a terrorist attack or other natural disasters. A virus isn’t necessarily contained to a small locale. It spreads. Fast. That’s the central premise of Contagion.
What would happen if a powerfully unknown virus came into existence? Fortunately, for viewers, it’s a fictional tale of a very realistic outbreak. It’s also wildly entertaining.
Contagion is director Steven Soderbergh’s first film since 2009’s quietly underrated The Informant and he’s known for his prolific productivity and for tackling different genres. Most recognized for the blockbuster Ocean films, he also directed the very indie The Girlfriend Experience (also in 2009) with famed adult star Sasha Grey that brought just as much attention, if not more, for his casting choice as for the film itself. However, fans of his more mainstream work will be glad to hear that Contagion is all that it promises to be. With a slew of stars including Matt Damon, Gwenyth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law and more, it tells the story of a virus outbreak across the world through many different stories and characters that often intertwine.
Built off of a solid script by Scott Z. Burns (The Informant, The Bourne Ultimatum) it’s a perceptive story that intends to show the realities of such an outbreak. It begins with Beth Emhoff (Gwenyth Paltrow) returning from China with what seems like the flu. But after she collapses and is brought to the hospital she dies, to the, obvious, shock of her husband Mitch (Matt Damon). As Mitch maintains a grounded center for the film, it shoots off into other tales of people affected by the outbreak.
Jude Law plays the snaggltoothed “truth” blogger Alan Krumwiede, intent on spreading the reality of the disease. That is, the reality that the governments and pharmaceutical companies are hiding. On the other side there’s Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Ellis Cheever heading up the CDC’s investigation into exactly what the virus is and how to fight against it. Then there’s Dr. Cheever’s field employee, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), who’s sent out to ground zero of Chicago to find out more about how the virus spreads and its possible origins. To say much more about each subplot would ruin much of the surprise of the film, as characters do come and go throughout.
While it’s a film about how the entire world would handle such an outbreak, it’s more about how individuals would deal with the situation. Some, like Dr Cheever, are directly involved with containing the virus while others, like Mitch Emhoff, are just bystanders affected by it. Through characters like Dr. Cheever and blogger Alan Krumwiede, Soderbergh gives just a touch of social commentary without ever becoming preachy. And while there’s a refreshing, un-biased approach to the story it can feel too sterile at times. As interesting as it is to watch the stories unfold, many characters feel undeveloped, however intentional that may be at times. It intends to shock with the reality of what an outbreak would do to the world’s society, citing the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic as a reference.
Despite this small shortcoming, Contagion is an excellently executed film that blends human drama with the realities of a viral outbreak. This isn’t a horror film about an imaginary monster or an unrealistic disaster. It’s real and it’s scary.
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