Contagion (United States/UAE, 2011)

September 10, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Contagion Poster

Contagion is the best movie made to date about an epidemic/pandemic. By making the characters accessories to the story rather than the central focus, the film is able to tell the story of the evolution of the disease without being encumbered by melodrama and artificially driven action sequences. The movie is neither thriller nor drama, but somewhere in between. In fact, it may be more procedural than anything else. With Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh does for diseases what he previously accomplished for the drug trade with Traffic. The two are peas in a pod, using slices of lives to illustrate how the central conceit impacts the human race. We are presented with the good, the bad, and the ugly, with heroism and self-interest, with altruism and desperation. It's compelling material and a far different experience than the more sensationalistic Outbreak.

Contagion is chilling because it is credible. This is not the tale of an apocalypse in which the world's population is reduced to a bunch of grungy survivors living in deserted cities, nor is it about a zombie infestation. Instead, it's a clear-eyed view of what might happen in the event that such an epidemic should occur. It's speculative and a great deal of thought and real-world experience has been brought to bear on the story. This is a purely plot-driven motion picture; the characters are only loosely fleshed-out because their purpose is not to fuel the story but to illustrate different aspects of it. The disease is the main character and Contagion traces its life cycle.

For Soderbergh, this is his latest flirtation with the mainstream. Recently, the filmmaker has been keeping a low-profile, making small independent productions like The Girlfriend Experience. But he has never been above making films for the popcorn crowd - Erin Brockovich, Oceans Eleven, Oceans Twelve, Oceans Thirteen being examples - and Contagion would, at least on the surface, seem to be an attractive multiplex option. Some may be a bit surprised by what the film offers, however. The thing that obviously attracted Soderbergh to Scott Burns' screenplay is the way it approaches familiar subject matter from an unconventional perspective.

The star-studded cast might lead some to expect a Hollywood blockbuster, but these are accomplished actors in unglamorous roles. Every one of the major players except Jennifer Ehle (whose career has been primarily on stage and on British TV) has been nominated for at least one acting Academy Award. Laurence Fishburne is Dr. Ellis Cheever, the head of the CDC, who becomes singled out as the fall guy when the epidemic spreads out of control. Kate Winslet is Dr. Erin Mears, the no-nonsense doctor he dispatches to Minneapolis to report from the field. Jennifer Ehle is Dr. Ally Hextall, the epidemiologist working in the lab to find a vaccination. Marion Cotillard is Dr. Leonora Orantes, a World Health Organization sent to Hong Kong, where it is believed the disease began its assault. Jude Law is Alan Krumwiede, a rabble-rousing blogger with millions of followers who is trying to turn the epidemic into a money-making opportunity. Gwyneth Paltrow is Beth Emhoff, Patient Zero. And Matt Damon is Mitch Emhoff, her husband, who appears to be immune to the disease.

The passage of time is indicated by subtitles indicating "Day 1", "Day 2", "Day 3", and so forth. The exact period over which events occur is not specified, but it's approximately six months. Locations are marked with subtitles not only specifying the city but the population as well. This is perhaps the most ominous information to appear on-screen because, the larger the number of people, the greater the death toll. We are informed that the influenza epidemic of 1918 killed 1% of the population. In today's world, with 6 billion people, a similar rate would result in 60 million deaths.

Contagion shows how the U.S. government and World Health Organization react to the situation once they realize it's serious. As Dr. Mears and her colleagues identify the virus and attempt to replicate it in the lab, Dr. Orantes uses security tapes and eyewitness accounts to identify Patient Zero in the hope of figuring out how the disease was transferred from bats to pigs to humans. Dr. Cheever holds news briefings but his credibility becomes compromised when it is discovered that he gave preferential treatment to his wife (notifying her that Chicago was about to be quarantined so she could get out). Mitch, despite being immune himself, doggedly pursues measures to keep his daughter, who may not have inherited the quality, safe. Dr. Mears risks her life by interacting with sick people as she sets up makeshift hospital wards in sports stadiums. Alan uses fear-mongering to manipulate the market. Economies collapse. The president goes to a "safe location." Riots erupt. But it's not the end of the world. It's a pause.

If there's a serious misstep in Contagion, it's that the subplot involving Alan is poorly focused. His motivation is murky. Initially, he appears to be a conspiracy theory nutcase. Then he's a market manipulator being recruited by a hedge fund manager. Soderbergh wants him in the film to represent a slice of the population, but doesn't seem to know how to manage him. There's a sense that Alan should have been given either more or less screen time. The amount he's actually accorded doesn't seem just right.

The literacy of Contagion may be its most impressive quality. This is as smart as a script about this subject could be, and it has not been dumbed down for public consumption. The suspense comes not from wondering whether a character will die, but from seeing how the human race will react to the next roadblock. There's a lot of material covered here - arguably too much for a 105-minute movie with so many characters - but it gives a powerful perspective of what could be. And, as you sit in a theater seat and watch events unfold on screen, it offers great offers great comfort to recognize that the normalcy of the real world does not offer a threat like this. Yet.

Contagion (United States/UAE, 2011)

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, Gwyneth Paltrow
Screenplay: Scott Z. Burns
Cinematography: Steven Soderbergh
Music: Cliff Martinez
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2011-09-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1