Doomsday stories revolving around an apocalyptic viral outbreak are nothing new in pop culture. In fact, a decent argument could be made that the subject has been fairly mined to death with novels like Stephen King’s The Stand, TV shows like Chris Carter’s Millennium, and even movies like the Dustin Hoffman thriller Outbreak (never mind the zombie films of George Romero and his legion of imitators).
But in recent years, thanks in large part to the Mayan prophecies related to the rapidly approaching year 2012, mass death by disease has taken a decided backseat in the apocalypse business to extinction through natural disaster.
With his own entry into the viral armageddon sweepstakes, director Steven Soderberg seeks to remedy this unfortunate situation. The resulting blockbuster Contagion succeeds in doing so on virtually every level. With an amazing ensemble cast of A-list actors like Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Lawrence Fishburne and Jude Law, Soderberg weaves together a series of interconnecting stories not unlike those found in his previous anti-drug war film Traffic.
As with that film, there is a contemporary sort of realism to the story that borders on an almost documentary sort of feel. Part of this is due to references to recent events like the over-hyped swine flu virus (acknowledged in the story as government types ponder a “chicken little” reaction from the public when the threat is real this time), as well as a clever weaving of real science with the fictional storyline.
The pacing of the film is also key. It starts abruptly with a cough (no opening credit roll), and from there the events unfold so rapidly, you don’t dare leave your seat for a bathroom break. Despite the mounting seriousness of the situation however, the story is told very deliberately. There is none of the big budget special effects of similar doomsday disaster films, and unlike the more gritty, herky-jerky camera work of Traffic, Contagion unfolds like the sort of real time reporting you might find on CNN if this were being reported as a real event.
Despite its realistic feel, there are a few holes though. When Matt Damon’s character tries to leave the city as the pandemic spreads and the inevitable looting and lawlessness starts, he meets a blockade of law enforcement at the border. The ensuing argument goes on a bit too long for what I would think would be martial law conditions in a similar real life crisis. When the bodies begin to pile up in the streets, it is also a bit curious that burning them is never considered — even as the government runs out of body bags.
Another odd element is Jude Law’s conspiracy blogger character, who develops a following by promoting a miracle cure (which seems to be loosely based on the one-time widely hyped cancer cure Laetrile). No one ever seems to question how he came upon this miraculous drug, including the national news media. When it is eventually revealed that he is lining his pockets by promoting a scam, it comes almost as an afterthought. In an interesting twist for Hollywood, the government actually turn out to be the good guys here — although not for any lack of the sort of inner-agency bickering one might expect in trying to manage such a crisis. Incidentally, Law is outstanding here as the stereotypical conspiracy blogger with a hidden agenda.
Other great performances include Matt Damon, who turns in one of the best of his career as the father and husband whose world is shattered in a single day by the deaths of his wife (Paltrow) and son. Damon’s understated performance perfectly demonstrates the emotions of how an ordinary man would likely react faced with such extraordinary circumstances.
Other standouts include Marion Cotillard as the health official who is kidnapped and held for medicinal ransom after being dispatched to Japan to locate the identity of Patient Zero. Even so, I had a tough time getting the Katy Perry images out of my head watching Cotillard on screen. Lawrence Fishburne is also excellent as the earnest government bureaucrat faced with mounting red tape and his own moral dilemmas. Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t really on screen long enough to fully register, although one of her key scenes is one of the most real and disturbing in the entire film.
Ultimately, Contagion is a film that will leave you thinking — and washing your hands — for days after you’ve seen it.