It is often predicted that the world will no longer end with the whimper of a long, boring war, but with the scream of a fatal, incurable and fast-moving plague. Addressing that theme in time to scare the living daylights out of everybody, Contagion is a star-studded, apocalyptic wake-up call to the horrors that await mankind in a test tube. We’ve made so much progress in terms of immunology, technology, scientific research and medical miracles that the planet considers itself immune to everything from small pox to swine flu. But there’s still no cure for cancer or AIDS, and the canvas of new viruses gets broader every year. So the topicality in Contagion is dark and unquestionable, if not creepy and off-putting. Tracking the global spread of an infectious virus that leads to deadly brain hemorrhages with no vaccine, writer Scott Burns and maverick director Steven Soderbergh have jump-started the serious fall movie season with an ambitious project that packs a wallop without much guarantee of commercial success. We have enough to worry about already; this movie says why bother, since we’re all doomed anyway.
Telling a complex story in a coherent narrative arc has never been one of Mr. Soderbergh’s strengths, and chronicling the day-by-day panic of a killer virus jumps all over the place. Melding elements from diverse sources, the film has a documentary quality that wastes the talents of an impressive A-list cast. The bubonic plague epidemic that wiped out half of Europe in the Middle Ages was finally traced to a contaminated well in a town square. To discover the origin of the mutating horror in Contagion you have to wait until the very last scene. The trajectory actually begins with Day 2. Feeling ill, a jet-lagged Gwyneth Paltrow returns to Minneapolis from a business trip in Hong Kong with a strange cough that leads to a migraine headache. Before her husband (Matt Damon) has time to properly welcome her home, she goes into a seizure, foams at the mouth, and dies in the E.R. Their son is the next victim. Like wildfire, the sickness spreads to the people she met on her trip who begin to gag, sweat and faint from Tokyo to Texas. As the cases multiply, so do the guest stars. At the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, health official Laurence Fishburne puts Kate Winslet, a leading doctor in the field of communicable diseases, in harm’s way to investigate the outbreaks with mortally toxic results. Meanwhile, at World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, researcher Marion Cotillard tries to trace the virus back to its origins in Asia, where she is kidnapped. Isolating people exposed to the virus is hard enough, but how do you quarantine 98 million people in China?
As the plague gains momentum, Homeland Security clocks in, suspecting bioterrorism and requesting sample vaccines to be injected into the drinking water like fluoride. Schools close. Naturally, as in all international crises, there are always the profiteers. After Laurence Fishburne is ordered by the Food and Drug Administration to keep research a secret, Elliot Gould shows up as a scientist who defies the shutdown of his research lab, growing the virus himself and taking credit for a medical breakthrough in print. Meanwhile, Jude Law enters the national radar as a sleazy journalist who makes millions by peddling a false cure in the form of a homeopathic treatment called forsythia. Mr. Soderbergh illumines every shadowy corner of this global pandemic with hypothetical examples of what to expect in an actual case of germ warfare. The Secret Service escorts the president out of Washington, through an underground passage. Banks, gas stations and public transportation collapse. Nurses go on strike. Hospital generators expire. Pharmacies are looted for bogus serums. Evacuation routes are blocked. Cities are looted and left in trash piles. And while the volume of misinformation builds, here’s a contemporary anxiety to mull over: in the age of Twitter, Facebook and the Internet, it’s easier to reduce an entire civilization to hysterics than ever before. None of the fragmented subplots are followed to a satisfying conclusion. Even after Jennifer Ehle, as a dedicated and heroic lab researcher, ignores government approvals and permissions for human experiments and tests a trial vaccine on herself, inoculations are determined by national lottery depending on birth dates.
Juggling multiple plotlines proved successful in Mr. Soderberg’s Traffic (and even more so in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s vastly superior Babel). Here, the conceit just seems jagged and annoying, without achieving the desired synchronicity. The film often looks like a lengthy public health announcement on the requirements for travel vaccinations. A lot of the medical technology in the dialogue is too technical for the lay mind to grasp. Who knows from “viral protein cells”? Do stick around for the epilogue—a clever re-enactment of how the virus started, and an explanation of Day 1. The ensemble cast is excellent, if underused. And some of it is downright gasp-inducing, especially when the characters see Gwyneth Paltrow’s lovely head open and the scalp pulled down over her eyes on the operating table. I found Contagion both flawed and fascinating, but it’s not an entertainment.
Running Time 105 minutes
Written by Scott Z. Burns
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Jude Law