Contagion: Soderbergh’s Global Bio-Medical Thriller, with All-Star Cast

There is considerable gap between the precision and sophistication of the filmmaking on the one hand and the routine storytelling on the other in “Contagion,” Soderbergh’s globe-trotting bio-medical disaster picture about a pandemic, a quickly spreading lethal virus.

World-premiering at the Venice Film Fest (out of competition, probably because it’s not good enough), “Contagion” will be released by Warner on September 9.  “Contagion” is a mid-level, mid-range commercial performer. But for me, regardless of the box-office, it’s a missed opportunity to make a thrilling film about a timely issue, a story about medical threat of potentially far more disastrous effects than those of terrorist attacks, in and out of the U.S.  I mention terrorism, because I don’t think it’s a coincidence that “Cotagion” opens two days before the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

In many ways, “Contagion” bears resemblance to Clint Eastwood’s  disappointing “Hereafter,” a multi- layered tale, driven by a different kind of disaster, in which which the subplots are linked by the character played by Matt Damon, who at the moment is Hollywood’s “Best” or “Most Credible” “Everyday Man.”

Let me explain: Relevant, sporadically involving, and well acted, “Contagion” suffers from an uneven scenario, in which half of the multiple stories are simply not engaging or significant enough.  The script is credited to Scott Z. Burns, who had previously penned “The Bourne Ultimatum,” as well as Soderbergh’s successful satire, “The Informant,” also starring Matt Damon.

After a terrific first reel, which establishes the settings, personas and main issues. “Contagion” begins to lose its narrative momentum, and by the end, there is a frustrating sense that here is a socially relevant feature, coming from the studio machine, with an all-star cast, that could have been so much more effective, so much more affective, so much more alarming.

Alongside “Ides of March” and “Carnage,” “Contagion” boasts a fabulous, highly appealing cast, including Kate Winslet (who’s also shining in “Carnage”), Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, and Gwyneth Paltrow. But, alas, I wish these actors were getting better, more substantial roles to play.

One of the most intelligent filmmakers of his generation, Soderbergh shows admirable restraint in two ways. He doesn’t jazz up the proceedings in a bombastic or sensationalistic way that, say, Michael Bay or another heck, would have. Second, and more importantly, he minimizes the role of special effects, relying more heavily than is the norm on narrative and characterization.

Beware: A cough is not just a cough. A handshake is more than a handshake. Anything you touch (like a bowl of peanuts or pretzels at a pub while you dring) might be contagious.

When Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns to Minneapolis from a business trip to Hong Kong, what she thought was a routine jet lag turns out to be something more serious.  But right now, Beth is concerned with meeting her boyfriend, whose existence is unbeknownst to her hubby.

Two days later, however, Beth is dead in the ER.  The doctors tell her shocked and grieving husband (Matt Damon, well cast as an ordinary  middle-class man) they have no idea why.

Soon, other individuals, residing in different places, exhibit the same mysterious symptoms: Strange coughs, which come out of nowhere, high fever, unexplained seizure, brain hemorrhage, and even death.

A global pandemic seems to be spreading in places like Minneapolis, Chicago, London, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong, amomgst other cities.  The number of casualties multiplies exponentially. One “simple” case soon becomes four, then sixteen, then hundreds, thousands. The contagion follows no discernible logic, has no limits, and recognizes no physical and geographical borders. It seems fueled by the countless human interactions that make up the course of an average day.

At the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers mobilize all of their resources to break the code of a unique biological pathogen as it continues to mutate virally.

Particularly instrumental is Deputy Director Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), who tries to allay the growing panic despite his own personal concerns. To that extent, he decides to send one of his bravest and best young doctors (Kate Winslet) into harm’s way.

Meanwhile, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of the World Health Organization works through the various networks of connections, hoping to get to the source of the alarming problem, which naturally causes collective panic.

Society and its social order begin to break down. As the death toll escalates, one activist blogger (Jude Law) claims the public is not getting the “truth” from the authorities about the lethal virus and its transmission, thus setting off a chain reaction of paranoia and fear.

As a responsible director, Soderbergh must have been torn by a number of dilemma.  One the one hand, he wished to make a realistic, plausible thriller whose subject is so timely, it might have been torn from the newspapers.  On the other hand, he knows as a savvy filmmaker that the whole point of a pop disaster flick is for the audience to relish the various, ingenious ways in which the characters are killed (as was the case of  the 1972 “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Airport,” “Earthquake,” etc).

Hampered by a flawed narrative, “Contagion” is technically overwhelming but dramatically underwhelming.   A movie in which all the characters are narrowly defined (and some really one-dimensional), “Contagion” is not particularly compelling or enjoyable as as medical thriller or disaster picture.  Withthe exception of  one or two ideas or elements, there are no suprises in the text–everything that you hear and/or see is familiar, either from other films or from actual chronicles of other lethal viruses, such as AIDS.

A decade ago, I had strong reservations over Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” his Oscar-winning film about the issue of global drug trafficking,” but in hindsight, it’s a better picture than “Contagion.”

End Note

The film contains so many “versions” and “variations” of coughing that I will not be surprised if this element becomes a subject of jokes and quips, creating a similar effect to that of the saliva-spitting sex scene in “Brokeback Mountain.”

Production: Double Feature Films/Gregory Jacobs

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns
Producers: Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Gregory Jacobs
Executive Producers: Jeff Skoll, Michael Polaire, Jonathan King, Ricky Strauss
Director of Photography: Peter Andrews
Production Designer: Howard Cummings
Costume Designer: Louise Frogley
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
Music: Cliff Martinez



MPAA Rating: PG-13 rating

Running time, 105 Minutes