The return of the viral outbreak film has been a long time coming (there hasn’t been one without zombies since 1995’s cheeky Outbreak), and Contagion is a damned good one. Feeling chillingly realistic throughout, director Steven Soderbergh and an all-star cast deliver a tense, first-rate thriller that will have you running for the soap and water once the end credits start rolling. Germaphobes won’t have a prayer.
The film begins on day two of the outbreak. Beth Emhoff (Paltrow), a Minnesota businesswoman, is one her return trip from Honk Kong when she starts developing flu-like symptoms. Before long, she is home and her health is deteriorating rapidly. She dies, leaving her husband (Damon) dumbfounded by what could have caused her death. Her symptoms, however, are quickly spreading to others throughout the world. As the outbreak approaches a pandemic level, the Center for Disease Control reaches an all-hands-on-deck situation as they track the spread and source of the virus.
Taking place over several months, Contagion piles on the dread with each passing minute. The gradual downward spiral of the general populace in the event of such an outbreak is captured flawlessly. Denial, acceptance, and desperation are the descriptors. Scott Burns’s screenplay adds depth as it explores the political ramifications. If you work for the CDC and have insider information, do you tell your family? How should the pecking order for vaccinations be established? Who stands to gain from such a catastrophe? Burns’s screenplay is engrossing and detail-oriented.
Soderbergh’s direction is crisp and aware of the overarching dread. His camera lingers on everyday items that we all touch; poles inside the bus, the peanuts at the bar, etc. It’s refreshing to see a director handle this gripping of material by not go crazy with the shaky-cam. The cast is terrific, headlined by Damon as the distraught father who has lost his wife and son and is seemingly immune to the virus itself. His character, however, is really one of the few that we truly care about. Burns’s script sacrifices character development for virus development, but it’s not a deal-breaker. Also a mixed bag is the subplot involving Jude Law as a conspiracy blogger out to expose purported corruption between the government and big pharmaceuticals.
The final moments of Contagion offers a theory as to how such a virus could come into existence. I’m no scientist, but the film introduces the possibility that simply a few happenstances and handshakes could start a domino effect that would put us all in mortal danger. That possibility alone is creepier than any slasher or human could be. Contagion doesn’t profess to be a cautionary tale, but it will make you think twice each time you touch a door handle.
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Length: 105 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for disturbing content and some language.
Theatrical Release: September 9, 2011
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Cast: Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law