When filmmakers weren't making gritty, intense, urban pictures in the 70s, they were busy with disaster epics, movies where an enormous number of stars would show up and work for a few days and horrible things would happen to them. Irwin Allen, of course, was the master, putting together both "The Towering Inferno" and "The Poseidon Adventure," amongst others. His touch has been frequently aped by contemporary filmmakers, Roland Emmerich probably being the guiltiest of the lot, but his oft-copied, rarely-equaled style is entirely unique.
Cut to Contagion, Steven Soderbergh's take on the genre. The list of Oscar winners in his disease-outbreak flick is impressive, with the likes of Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Marion Cotillard putting in appearances. Soderbergh's film is smart and, like most of his long-form pieces, extremely well edited, though Contagion—which will make you wish you had hand sanitizer with you throughout—clocks in at under two hours.
Perhaps the smartest move Soderbergh makes, however, is his very first. The movie tells us what day of the epidemic we're on, but he doesn't start at Day One. No, things begin on Day Two, as a coughing Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) takes a voicemail in an airport. If you've seen the trailers, you already know she's a goner. Shortly after she gets home to her husband, Mitch (Damon), whatever it is she has gets the better of her. She's clearly one of the earliest patients, but Soderbergh shows us similar cases around the globe. What we don't know is this: what is the disease, and where did it come from? All sorts of people are trying to figure that out, including CDC head Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), his go to assistant, Erin Mears (Winslet), WHO rep Dr. Leonora Orantes (Cotillard), and other various doctors and military types like Bryan Cranston, Demetri Martin (yes, the comedian), Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould, and Enrico Colantoni. But unlike SARS or swine flu or bird flu, this strain can't be contained, and soon an enormous portion of the population has it, and a lot of people are dying.
Not all of these characters interact with one another. In fact, in keeping with Allen's legacy, there are diverging plots which seek to tell the story in a larger context. Damon's desperate to protect his daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) from the sickness. Others are tracking down the source of the outbreak. Others are on the front lines, trying to stop the spread of the contagion. And still others, like blogger Jude Law, are trying to sort out just what the hell is going on.
If "Contagion" has a real problem, it's that having so many characters makes it somewhat cold and clinical, and there are moments of sentimentality that don't feel right, taking you out of the reality Soderbergh has built. Cheever's interactions with the CDC janitor (John Hawkes, who is tragically underused here) fit that bill, as well as a situation faced by Marion Cotillard's character. That said, paranoia and the resulting violence spread just as fast as the virus itself, and Soderbergh creates a situation which feels as though it could actually occur. Additionally, the search for Patient Zero is fascinating, as scientists narrow down exactly how and where this catastrophe could have begun.
Look, if you've seen "Traffic," you know Soderbergh can handle this sort of material, sprawling epic tales with lots of characters. If anything, "Contagion" ranks below that, but above "Che." It's a well-made film with occasional flaws—as far as I'm concerned, Jude Law's character could have been cut out entirely. Though the cast doesn't always have the greatest material to work with, these are talented people, who are usually able to deliver exposition with a straight face. Perhaps the film's greatest strength is that, unlike "Independence Day" or "2012," is that it feels as though it's an ambitious look on something that could actually happen.
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Genre/s: Thriller Drama
Release Date/s: 9/9/2011 (Showtimes & Tickets)
Production Company: Double Feature Films, Participant Media
Official Site: Contagion Official Site
CAST and CREW FOR Contagion
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne
Directed By: Steven Soderbergh
Written By: Scott Z. Burns
Produced By: Gregory Jacobs, Steven Soderbergh, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher
Contagion Clip: "They're Closing Midway and O'Hare: