by Ryan Hill
The first 10 minutes of Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” are so chilling it feels like a horror film rather than a mainstream thriller. The premise: A super virus has emerged, leaving the medical world in a mad dash to stop it before it becomes a worldwide pandemic.
The film opens with the first of the infected walking around airports, bustling subways and public markets. They drink from glasses others pick up, touch other people’s skin and cough. A lot. And Soberbergh, shooting in his trademark “you are there” style, creates a sequence scary enough to make you wish the theater handed out Purell at the door.
This opening sets the tone for the rest of the film, which follows three main storylines: Newly-widowed Mitch (Matt Damon) dealing with the virus and panic on the ground level, the efforts of doctors Ellis and Mears (Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet) at the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization and Alan (Jude Law) pouring gasoline on the fire with his incendiary blog.
The most entertaining of these storylines is the immune Mitch, whose efforts to protect his daughter are truly thrilling.
Blogger Alan is interesting because he has potentially dubious motives, but Law plays him as a typical paranoiac who thinks the government is hiding a cure and the pharmaceutical companies only want a profit. As the virus spreads, he’s clearly making things worse for those trying to help, all because he’s tasted the power of his influence and lets it go to his head.
The majority of the film focuses on the efforts to contain and cure the virus. Featuring Fishburne, Winslet, Bryan Cranston, Marion Cotillard and Jennifer Ehle, this plotline is equal parts fascinating and frustrating. All the doctors are wooden and one-note, to the point that the movie screeches to a halt at times, especially when they stop to explain the science and technical vernacular of viruses as a lesson to the audience.
Soderbergh strains to wrangle the ensemble cast in the 105-minute runtime and it shows. Especially in the doctors’ storyline, where each character has a human trait thrown in at the last minute in an attempt to give them some depth.
The biggest crime Soderbergh commits, however, is during the worldwide panic. Not one mention is made of religion. “Contagion” paints its virus as a potential world-ender, yet there isn’t one person, not even in the background, holding some kind of religious sign or screaming for people to repent before it’s too late.
“Contagion” is reminiscent of Wolfgang Petersen’s similarly-themed “Outbreak,” Stephen King’s “The Stand” and even Soderbergh’s outstanding “Traffic,” which won him an Oscar. But unlike “Traffic,” Soderbergh can’t neatly tie the plotlines together, making “Contagion” an effective, but not entirely satisfying, thriller that may make you want to wash your hands, but little else.
Grade: 3 out of 4
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for disturbing content and some language
Cast: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures