Stephen Soderbergh’s “Contagion” begins with a cough, and ends with a handshake, but those two things are enough to bring about the end of humanity.
There are few things I love more than a good disease and end-of-the-world story. When I was a kid, I read Stephen King’s “The Stand” in one weekend, and a few years later, read it again, in its “uncut” edition. My favorite book last year was “The Passage,” and I read “The Coming Plague” back in the ’90s like it was a potboiler, unable to put it down. (The chapter on Legionnaire’s Disease? Riveting.)
“Contagion” is more “Coming Plague” than it is “The Stand,” and is more interested in procedure than it is character development, but this focus doesn’t make it any less engrossing.
That opening cough belongs to Gwyneth Paltrow‘s Beth, a businesswoman on a layover in Chicago, on her way home from a trip to Hong Kong, whom we meet in a scene titled “Day 2.” A bowl of peanuts at an airport bar and a credit card transaction continue a chain of transmission that started at a Hong Kong casino, and before long Beth is deemed patient zero, and the first American victim of a deadly new virus. (This is not a spoiler, as anyone who has seen a trailer has seen Paltrow die, to which I might add: any movie featuring the death of Gwyneth Paltrow can’t be all bad.)
From here on we gradually meet the film’s large number of players. They include Matt Damon, as Beth’s widower; Laurence Fishburne, as a doctor at Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control; Kate Winslet as his deputy in the field, expounding such facts as the average person touches his or her face 2,000 times a day; Marion Cotillard as a World Health Organization epidemiologist who must trace the origin of transmission like a detective; Jennifer Ehle as the scientist in search of a vaccine; and Jude Law as a San Francisco blogger who posts an early (literal?) viral video on his blog, and then proceeds to fuel the flames of rumor and paranoia to all who will listen.
And those are just the major players in a much larger cast that covers several continents. Soderbergh has tackled this kind of sprawling story before, with the Oscar-nominated “Traffic,” and he manages to balance the players and stories just as well here. He understands how to use movie shorthand (such as a woman answering a cell phone with her left hand, showing a wedding ring, while the man she is talking to mentions “safe” phone numbers to call him on), and keeps the pace moving relentlessly forward, complete with an ever-present soundtrack that brings to mind John Carpenter-penned horror movie scores.
The fact that the film is filled with so many familiar faces certainly helps to keep characters and the places they’re in straight in the viewer’s mind, but the two-hour running time doesn’t leave one much time to form a lot of empathy towards those characters. Paltrow isn’t the only top-billed star to bite it in this movie, and the deaths happen quickly, and without much fanfare.
But perhaps that’s the point. When a virus is is sweeping the globe, threatening to kill one in every four people it attacks, there’s little time for funerals, grieving, or tears.
Aside from the virus itself, there isn’t really a villain to root against in “Contagion,” but Jude Law’s blogger Krumwiede comes pretty close. He’s shown to be more interested in his “12 million unique visitors” than he is in facts, and spreads rumors that prove to be just as potentially harmful as the virus itself (and travel just as quickly).
(Also, if that weren’t enough to make him the bad guy, Soderbergh also slaps some ugly teeth into Law’s pretty boy mug. Or maybe it’s just because he assumes bloggers can’t afford dental?)
While the film has a classic disaster movie set-up, (with a few aspects of the zombie genre thrown in), Soderbergh manages to convey the feeling of global impact (rioting inevitably breaks out in major cities), while maintaining a more intimate feeling of intensity (barricading oneself in one’s home as a means of protection from the virus doesn’t do much good against people with guns).
But ultimately, “Contagion” is a procedural drama as horror movie, with heroes (and heroines) emerging from behind microscopes, and the killer lingering in that wet spot on the hand rail of a Muni bus. (Lord help you if you see the movie in a theater with a cougher. THAT would certainly be a more immersive experiences than 3D!)
While it’s true that we don’t learn that much about most of the characters in the movie, the movie still packs an emotional wallop at the end, with a brief moment of connection, sorrow, and hope amongst a trio of survivors, and a coda that brilliantly brings the movie full-circle. Is it the end? Or merely the beginning of the end?