Saturday, February 11, 2012


Films about infectious diseases typically try to make it easy for the audience to relate.  Maybe a madman is trying to infect the others (12 Monkeys), or the quarantining of an area puts your loved ones at risk (The Crazies), or people stop acting nice when survival is on the line (28 Days Later).  Contagion takes the relatively novel approach of not giving the audience a straw man to hate.  Instead, this is a thoughtful, realistic story that is not sensationalized.  But does that make for a movie you want to see?

Two days after returning home from Hong Kong on a business trip, Beth Emhoff's (Gwyneth Paltrow) nasty cold escalates from coughing and looking ugly to seizing and death.
Death: When you're too ugly to live
She's not alone.  Her son died less than two days after being exposed to whatever the hell his mother had, and cases pop up in Hong Kong and London, as well.  This mysterious disease appears to be highly contagious and kills in a matter of days, but there is worse news: with airline travel, the disease quickly becomes a pandemic, reaching most major metropolitan areas before anything can be organized to stop its spread.  Some people, like Beth's husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), are immune to the disease, thanks to a lucky genetic twist.
"I get it.  She's dead.  I've got an owwie on my soul.  Do I get a lollipop?"
Most others are not.  For instance, the mortality rate of Academy Award winners appears to be 50%.  It is up to the Center For Disease Control's main man, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), and his team to figure out what the disease is, how it is spread, and ultimately how to stop it. 
" won't die.  You're just part of the Matrix"
That means that there are researchers working around the clock in horribly unflattering hazmat suits, trying to decode this virus.  The military are worried that this might be biological warfare.  Obnoxious conspiracy bloggers like Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) see this as an elaborate get-rich-quick scheme by a government and pharmaceutical industry that are supposedly working hand-in-glove.  CDC workers try to pinpoint where the disease began by tracking who encountered who once Beth Emhoff returned to the US, as well as when she was in Hong Kong.  People keep getting sick and people keep dying, leading to riots, supply shortages, and a general breakdown of civilization in some areas.  The world just plain sucks, but there are silver linings around every cloud.  Hopefully, the silver isn't poisonous mercury.
I'd wear a raincoat, just the same

Contagion was directed by Steven Soderbergh, and it is obvious from the very first that this one of his "Issue" movies.  The storytelling style and camerawork are often reminiscent of Traffic, but without the complex moral dilemmas.  Of course, that film had the benefit of moral decisions in the plot, while Contagion is more about survival.  Not having a humanoid enemy makes a big difference, doesn't it?  It's not that I disliked Soderbergh's direction here; it is simply pretty standard fare for a movie with so many interlinking plots.  The one bit of artistic flair that you will see from the director comes when he focuses on what sick people have touched --- I thought that was a clever bit of work that showed how vulnerable everyone is to a disease that is spread through the germs we leave via physical contact.  Soderbergh also deserves some credit for getting such a noteworthy cast into so many small roles, even if some of the actors were underutilized.

Speaking of the actors,even with such a large cast, the heart of the story was dependent on just one.  Matt Damon was very good as the surviving husband of patient zero; normally, a role like this would be painful to watch, since the character is essentially grieving for the whole film, but Damon handled it beautifully with a believable and sympathetic performance.  Jude Law probably leaves the second biggest impression as the closest thing to a villain that the movie has.  He was slimy, despicable and annoying.  I thought it was interesting that the film portrayed a blogger with such power and reach, and yet made sure to make him a complete douche bag.
Complete with his matching suit
Most of the rest of the cast was solid, but their parts weren't spectacular.  Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburne were good.  Elliot Gould, Bryan Cranston, Demetri Martin, John Hawkes, and just about everybody else's parts basically amounted to cameos.  Even Gwyneth Paltrow and Marion Cotillard, who are featured on all the posters and commercials are barely in the movie.
Unless Cotillard was actually kidnapped during filming, in which case I'm a jerk

Looking back, I kind of want to criticize Contagion for focusing so much on the plot and not enough on the characters, given the excellent cast and Soderbergh's ability to make ensemble casts work.  But that's not really fair.  Soderbergh set out to make a frighteningly plausible film about a pandemic in the modern world, and he succeeded.  The film is disturbing at the very least and horrifying if you're anything close to a hypochondriac.  The straightforward tone of the narrative makes sure the effect of the plot on your intellect isn't diluted by a sappy love story or anything like that.  While something more character-based certainly would have made for a more entertaining film, that's not the point of Contagion.  This film was meant to be as realistic as it could be, and it succeeds. 
The message of Contagion is clear: we are not ready, and probably never will be prepared for a true pandemic.  We are damned lucky that the worst thing we have had to deal with is the bird flu.  That message is clear.  In terms of delivering a message, this film definitely succeeds.  However, it's surprisingly dry and emotionally remote for a subject that can hit so close to home.  I like the basic idea of Contagion.  I like the acting.  I like most of the direction.  Unfortunately, something doesn't add up; this is a well-made film with purpose that somehow finds a way to underwhelm.  Of course, that's compared to what you might expect from so many big names in one movie.  It's not perfect, but it's still worth a watch.  Those of you who are nervous about germs and might want to take a pass.


  1. Good film but could have been better. Damon and Winslet the stand-outs but Law is admirable for playing such an annoying character!

  2. I definitely agree that it could have been better. Law was surprisingly effective as a little twat. I just feel like the film did what it set out to do, even if that meant that it underachieved in the overall quality department.

  3. Thanks for the great review! I saw Contagion was available in HD via PPV on my employee Dish subscription, so I could not resist the urge to come online and see what others were saying about it. I want to know what I’m getting myself into before I think about spending any money on renting a film. It does sound like it’s worth a shot though and now I’m pretty intrigued to check it out after reading your review. I can’t believe so many big stars were included in this movie, but only Matt Damon and Jude Law are those stand out characters as you said. Lucky for me I do not have much of a problem towards germs and sickness and love me some Matt Damon, so it looks like I will be ordering this movie sometime this weekend. Thanks again. :)

  4. Discover how to book any flight for $100 instead of $1,000 with Travel Hacking.