Music Feature

Film Review: Contagion

by Piers Marchant
Invest in vinyl gloves.

Dir. Steven Soderbergh
Score: 5.9

There are a lot of big name stars in Steven Soderbergh's international epidemic procedural, which is necessary, in part, because so many of them die within minutes of their first appearance on screen. As the comedian Louis CK attests in one of his seminal bits, everyone we know will eventually die, a concept we as human beings do our best to tamp down, but even if we did accept that, it doesn't mean we'd be prepared for everyone we know to die within a few weeks of each other.

Soderburgh's film, working from a screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, cuts rapidly between various protagonists: There's the initial patient X, Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), an international businesswoman just returned from a trip to Hong Kong, where she engages in a brief dalliance with an old flame during a layover in Chicago, before heading back to her husband (Matt Damon) in Minneapolis, before she takes rapidly ill. There's the director of the CDC, Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), on whose shoulders most of the stress of the epidemic strikes; one of his top field operatives, Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet), who travels to Minneapolis in order to try and contain the situation before it totally overwhelms the populace; an ethically challenged blogger, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who catches on to the gravity of the situation long before the mainstream media does and makes a financial killing as a result; and a host of other patients, survivors, government officials and panicked civilians cramming the screen, as the disease quickly reaches pandemic levels and sets humanity at large to full, panicking riot mode.

Soderbergh keeps the film grounded in a kind of compact realism, which makes the first act especially that much more disconcerting. It's not just focused on the nature of epidemics and the failed government bureaucracies that can't contain them, it's equally invested in its large cross-section of characters. As a result, we get a much more full spectrum of reaction, from absolute terror and panic all the way over to triumphant optimism. In a sense, though, this particular strength of the film is also its weakness. In eschewing many of the tropes of the traditional, highly amplified epidemic drama, it presents a more realistic depiction of the proceedings, but in doing so it also allows for a somewhat pat resolution that feels like a failed opportunity.

Perhaps the most unsettling images in the film are the myriad of shots early on of the random travels of the initially afflicted, inadvertently infecting everything they touch, from seemingly innocuous glasses and plates, to subway poles, and tortilla chips. Soderbergh's camera lingers just long enough on the tainted objects to let the danger of them fully take hold; so close we are to extinction, we have no idea. Alas, because the film chooses to unravel all this built-up tension, it feels too much as if it's pulling its punches, content to spook us a little rather than really shake us out. Soderbergh has a chance to give us a good kick in the pants, instead, he settles for a stern look and a vaguely wagging finger.

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