© 2011 Ray Wong
In some markets, Contagion is being shown as a horror film, and I can see why. It's probably one of the scariest movies I've seen because it's so realistic: it could really happen to us!
When Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from a business trip in Hong Kong, she gets gravely ill with flu-like symptoms. She's dead within a few days, and when her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) returns from the hospital, he discovers that his stepson has died as well. Mitch discovers that he's immune, but he can't take a chance with his daughter as she may not have inherited his immunity.
Meanwhile, multiple people have also died in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Chicago from a new, highly contagious virus. The outbreak quickly draws the attention of the CDC. Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) sends specialist Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) to investigate. Meanwhile, Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) connects the dot and suspects that Beth Emhoff is, in fact, Patient Zero and must have contracted the virus at a casino in Macao. Cheever and his staff are trying to find the cause and a way to come up with a vaccine as quickly as they can, as the outbreak continues to wipe out large populations at a frightening speed. He's also under pressure from Homeland Security to keep the information from the general public to prevent a global panic and meltdown.
Meanwhile, freelance journalist Alan Krumweide (Jude Law) is skeptical about the government's involvement. He makes a name for himself when he cures himself online using an already-available drug. The news causes massive looting and pits Alan in direct conflict with the CDC and Homeland Security. Little do they know Alan is profiting from his new fame and visibility. As millions of people continue to die every day and societies crumble, Cheever and the world are racing against time to find a real cure.
The star-studded cast includes Gwyneth Paltrow (Iron Man 2) in a brief but pivotal role as Patient Zero. Her journey to death is disturbing and frightening, signaling what is yet to come. Matt Damon (Hereafter) is solid as her grieving husband, who has to deal with his wife's infidelity and the deaths of her and his stepson, as well as the well-being of his teenage daughter (from a previous marriage). Laurence Fishburne (Predators) has a sizable role as Dr. Cheever, and he handles it with grace and sincerity.
Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes) is effectively slimy and unethical as the rogue journalist, even though you know he speaks the truth (sometimes). Marion Cotillard (Midnight in Paris) is lovely but she doesn't have much to do in the movie. The most sympathetic character belongs to Kate Winslet (The Reader) as Dr. Mears: a kind, compassionate, devoted scientist who succumbs to tragedy because she cares so much.
The screenplay by Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!) takes on a lot with a huge cast of characters. It reminds me of yet another Soderbergh's movie, Traffic. Fortunately, the story here follows a logical plot that unfolds organically, with the characters being in the middle of it. Burns focuses on their parts in the story but doesn't shy away from making it personal for the characters as well. It is not an easy task to develop these characters and make us care about them given the number of characters and how their lives intertwine with one another's (or not).
At times, though, the plot seems contrived and loses focus. There are some threads that can easily be cut without sacrificing the clarity of the story and the flow of the plot. Dialogue seems tight but a bit superficial at times, and there are minor characters that are as flat as cardboard. Over all, however, Burns keeps the focus on just a handful of characters and how they help move the story along. At the end, it feels like we've just watched a few short stories that are linked together by a core thread, and the resulting storytelling is quite effective and dramatic.
Director Steven Soderbergh (The Informant!) is no stranger to thrillers involving multiple characters and a complicated plot structure (think Ocean's 11 or Traffic). His direction is swift and precise, masterful in its pacing and tension building. The editing is exceptionally effective as it intercuts between the multiple characters' story lines while keeping the core story intact. Soderbergh also slows things down to reveal characters and makes us care, and that's very important in a story like this. Otherwise, we'd just be bored while watching the body count goes up.
Contagion is a slick, fast-paced thriller that doesn't forget the human stories. One gripe, though: even though it was shot all over the world with an international cast, the story is predictably US-centric (and it takes an American team to save the day, of course). It could be even more frightening if we were shown the devastation in third-world countries, for example. Still, the filmmakers have given us a realistic portrayal of a global outbreak of a deadly virus. It's frightening and disturbing, because this could really happen. While it's highly entertaining (have popcorns ready), the fear can be contagious.
Stars: Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Scott Z. Burns
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for disturbing content and some language
Running Time: 105 minutes
Script - 7
Performance - 8
Direction - 8
Cinematography - 8
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 8
Production - 8
Total - 7.8 out of 10.0