Director Steven Soderbergh’s new big-budget thriller Contagion is dedicated to exploring the spread of an epidemic as realistically and seriously as possible. Unfortunately, what results is a film that’s about as entertaining as the actual flu.
Opening today nationwide, Contagion is an ensemble drama that follows a group of civilians and international health officials struggling to stop a mysterious illness that kills its host in just three days. The movie opens with Patient Zero, successful businesswoman Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), as she returns from a business trip to China. Starting on Day 2 of her infection, as Beth begins to visibly take ill, the audience is introduced to the film’s other protagonists: Paltrow’s unemployed but lovable husband Mitch (Matt Damon); Centers for Disease Control bigwig Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne); CDC scientists Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) and Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle); World Health Organization scientist Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard); and blogger and conspiracy theorist Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). Several more characters fill out the cast, such as Bryan Cranston as U.S. Gen. Lyle Haggarty and Anna Jacoby-Heron as Mitch’s daughter Jory. However, the main action revolves around those central six characters as they slowly try to create a vaccine.
Slowly is the key word when talking about the Warner Bros. drama, which is so bent on portraying the epidemic in a realistic light that the action seriously drags, bogged down in the minutiae of CDC policy and scientific jargon. There’s a lot of sitting in offices as Fishburne and Winslet talk about how to measure virus reproductive rates, talk about forming policy to deal with the disease, talk about how to implement that policy and talk about the political aspects of implementing policy. On the civilian side there’s a lot of waiting as Damon and his daughter wait in a hospital to get tested for the disease, wait to bury their loved ones, wait to hear of a cure.
In fact, Winslet’s character is the only person in Contagion that actively does something. As a CDC field operative on her first assignment she’s easily the most compelling figure as she takes charge of organizing the FEMA and Red Cross treatment of the infected while under mounting political pressure. Tragically, Winslet’s storyline is one of the many that gets cut short as Soderbergh frantically switches from protagonist to protagonist in an attempt to cover every single person affected by the disease.
This is Contagion’s fatal flaw: Every time a storyline gets interesting, the film hops to a different character. We don’t spend enough time with any one person to really invest in their struggles, and many of the stories never wrap up. Winslet’s is cut short, Elliot Gould’s Dr. Sussman ceases to exist as soon as he’s fulfilled his plot purpose, Cotillard’s story literally doesn’t have an ending. The unfortunate thing is that all of the stories are interesting enough in their own right to be the main plot of a movie, but Contagion is so concerned with showing every single possible point of view that no one storyline ever delves below the surface level. The closest the piece gets to a conflict outside of the disease is evil blogger Alan. Unapologetically annoying and deliberately spreading misinformation, Law is obviously supposed to be the movie’s human villain as his blog (which, as we are reminded multiple times, gets 12 million views!) hawks a bogus homeopathic cure for the disease.
With this setup, it’s hard to be truly frightened by the virus. We’re told millions are dead yet we do not really see the virus’ affect on the world population. Instead, we get a lot of lingering shots of objects the infected touch, the camera zooming into mug handles and doorknobs while ominous music swells. There is some looting toward the end, but these scenes feel tacked on and don’t make sense in the world of the movie. If people are quarantining themselves inside their homes, why would they gather en masse and risk infection? The casino scenes where we see Paltrow inadvertently spread the disease are fun, but don’t make up for the rest of the movie.
As for the dialogue, while the screenwriters may be familiar with CDC protocol they seem to have only a passing interest in the English language. Back stories are regurgitated in stiff expositional chunks, such as when Ehle gives an unnaturally formal monologue about being inspired to her sick father. Aubrey (Dr. Cheever’s wife, played by Sanaa Lathan) delivers some truly cringe-worthy lines as she tries to console her husband, cheerfully stating that even the Spanish influenza only killed “three out of four people!” The acting suffers as a result of the script, and while no one is actively bad – Contagion deserves credit for a charismatic and endearing cast -- the performances cannot make up for the eye-roll moments.
Ultimately, Contagion lacks a clear overarching theme to tie together all the disparate storylines. It’s also impossible to figure out what Soderbergh thinks the message of his film is. Is it "Don’t trust the government"? Most of the cast is working for the CDC, the U.S. military or WHO, and while they make some mistakes they are literally dying to save the world. Is the message that people revert to savagery in a crisis? Despite a lack of garbage collectors in the second act, society never collapses and widespread panic never increases above the level of looting. The only message that truly sticks seems to be “Don’t trust bloggers,” but even this doesn’t work, as some of what Alan says is true -- the U.S. government is hiding information from the people. Yet the movie never attempts to address this, and the question that’s actually at the center of Contagion, whether it’s better to withhold information from the public to prevent panic or arm them with knowledge, is never truly explored.
With a tagline (“Nothing Spreads Like Fear”) more action-packed than the film itself, Contagion suffers from a lack of focus and direction. But if you want to watch policy wonks dither for an hour and 45 minutes, then by all means go see it. After all, you should never trust a blogger.