Steven Soderbergh’s new medical thriller, Contagion, explores the horrors of a worldwide epidemic with the help of an all-star ensemble. The cast list is impressive; Soderbergh veteran Matt Damon stars alongside Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Marion Cotillard (naming the faces on the poster alone).
We hit the ground running with Beth Emhoff (Paltrow), an executive returning to the States and her family after a business trip to China. She’s feeling a little under the weather (in a movie called Contagion, I’m sure that’s fine). Before long, she is rushed to the hospital after a seizure and a sequence of truly shocking moments soon follows. I don’t want to spoil the first act, but no punches are pulled as the virus is set in motion and quickly spreads. While Beth’s grieving husband (Damon) tries to protect what’s left of his family, the authorities step in.
CDC doctors Ellis (Fishburne) and Hextal (Jennifer Ehle) analyze the virus and race to develop a vaccine while their associate, Dr. Mears (Winslet), attempts to treat and contain the infected from the field. Another doctor, Orantes (Cotillard), traces our first victim’s steps and investigates the source of the outbreak. Pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place. Meanwhile, you won’t be surprised to hear that the U.S. government suspects terrorists and someone on the internet is being a dick. Activist blogger, Alan Krumwiede (Law), questions the honesty of the establishment and spreads conspiracy theories about a cure.
Uncomfortable shots of hands touching faces, mouths, food and every available surface highlight our vulnerability. The death toll rises as the authorities scramble for control. The first half of the film maintains tension as the many characters frantically do their best (often failing) to react to a problem of apocalyptic proportions. Misinformation and panic take hold. Contending with the recent flooding here on the East Coast, scenes of crowds hoarding batteries, looting and becoming shut-ins are spookily familiar.
We start strong. The film takes the high road in terms of addressing the subject matter through careful character study rather than garish Roland Emmerich-style melodrama and excess. The film is also largely absent of gender roles, which is surprising and appreciated. The cast has its share of beautiful Hollywood starlets, but none are sexualized or made-up to cater to the male gaze. This is rare. While sparse, the score is well done and the film is beautifully shot and edited as well.
Unfortunately, the film loses momentum by the second half as the ground-level thrills and intrigue give way to a more clinical and detached medical drama and engaging subplots are removed from play. Shades of gray that were previously compelling become fairly black and white as motives are revealed. The good guys do the right thing and we fuss over how goddamn noble they are. The first act hints at something greater than the mundane procedural we get. It’s good, but it could have been excellent.
Still, if you’re looking for a thrill this weekend, you could do much worse. You might even start washing your hands. Filthy.
Contagion opens wide in Philly-area theaters today.