The most foreboding image in Steven Soderbergh’s new outbreak thriller Contagion is an uncovered bowl of bar peanuts.
I mean that as a compliment. At the heart of this star infested, globally minded, medical thriller, there’s a maniacal—even healthy if you will—sense of paranoia and anxiety surrounding our habits and social structures. Soderbergh takes a break from his personal art projects to deliver a monster movie for the masses where the unyielding beast in question is a nasty microbe that plans to eat its way through Hong Kong, London, San Francisco…the world.
If he misses bringing all of the myriad human threads together into a convincing drama, that’s ok, because he efficiently captures the splinter of chaos and viral onslaught—biological, psychological and informational—that worms its way into a populace when death and fear are the order of the day. So what ifyou forgot Matt Damon’s characters name when you walked out of the theater? More importantly, did you wipe down the door on your way out? How about after, as a courtesy to the next guy?
Soderbergh has a good handle on our vulnerability as a culture and here he demonstrates that understanding in a way more showy and exploitative than he has in the past. I’m actually quite pleased with this step down from the ivory tower, and think it serves Contagion well. Packing a film with big names just to kill a few of them minutes into your movie is a crass and obvious gesture, but then the secret weapon of Contagion is that it’s really a nervy airport paperback crossed with a funky 70’s bio-thriller; there’s more of The Andromeda Strain and Stephen King here than you are expecting. Opening montages, carefully selected to establish this killer cold’s path and range, are predictable but disarming; subway poles, romantic kisses, public restrooms. The movie begins with a cough, followed by more, one after the other. Somewhere out in our screening audience, a few people decided to participate. I started pestering my wife for the Purell from her purse.
Not long into this airborne journey, we are staring down at the dead, glassy eyes of a child and shortly after Gwyneth Paltrow herself is laid out on the morgue table, scalp peeled back for autopsy. No one is safe and all must take care; of themselves, others, and the world at large. This is the closest Soderbergh gets to a message, but he weaves it through all of his multi-national threads. A virus is no respecter of persons, and we spend a good hour watching this unknown illness eat its way through the world while valiant doctors at the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and WHO (World Health Organization) race for a cure while trying to hold it together themselves.
Things break down quickly, and not all of it has to do with people dropping like flies from what initially seems like nothing more than a rough case of the flu. The virus passes undetected at first, and by the time the early reports of the dead and infected start coming out of the hospitals, it’s already too late to avoid a mass epidemic. The canvas is global. The emphasis is on our social mechanics. All of the unspoken civilized contracts we keep with one another on a daily basis deteriorate quickly in the face of hysteria and mistrust, sped along by misinformation and wrong-headed fear-mongering. On a macro level, the world is bearing down to weather a media storm, while individuals in the streets are reverting to primal instinct. Scriptwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Identity) keeps things economical and fast-paced; there’s a crude but admirable simplicity to the way he stages scenes that move from a national to global scale, from the technical to the personal, from doctors in labs to everyday citizens on the street. The path of our downfall is easy to track, and it’s scarier as a result.
The cast is good and do their jobs, but this film could have just as easily been peopled with unknown faces and the result might be tighter, more singularly frightening. Once we get past the initial shock of seeing usually coiffed movie stars get pasty and snotty and then deceased, there’s not much that the presence of Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishburne or Kate Winslet adds to the film. Each of them is there as a placeholder to represent a different demographic or element—most of them boiled down to easily identifiable human traits or functions—and on the level of a one-note disaster film, that approach pays off. But in his efforts to gain clarity and provide diverse richness to his stew, Soderbergh thins it out to the point of dilution.
Fishburne’s Dr. Cheever is interesting but harried, and a late in the game relational reveal feels like an afterthought. Damon is set at the same mode as Eastwood’s Hereafter, a working class guy trying to reach up and build a port in a swirling storm—here that means protecting his kids after his wife dies. Cotillard and Winslet make the best of throwaway ‘strong female’ roles as two different scientists thrown into the fray The small gems of Jennifer Ehle as a Washington researcher hot after the cure, John Hawkes as a janitor facing a living nightmare, and a surprisingly spry and effective Jude Law as a rabid blogger are worth sorting through this miasma of talent for. One of my favorite incidental moments involves Elliot Gould’s scientist informing Law’s internet personality that ‘blogging isn’t writing; it’s graffiti with punctuation.’
Whether the world survives or not isn’t the most pressing issue in Contagion. There is a taut and persistent tone of suspense all the way through, but a better picture might have made us care more about the bigger implications of what a culture under genetic fire looks like, how it operates, and evolves to outpace its own demise. A film like that would require a greater emphasis on the humanity of its characters and a warmer, wiser figurehead. Soderbergh is more of a visualist, an air traffic controller of the arts, and he’s principally concerned with freaking out your sense of calm and delusional expectations of safety. On that note, if no other, Contagion craws under your skin and gets the goosebumps going.
Go see it, but please, wash your hands before you touch the popcorn butter pump.