Nowadays, paid film attendance is shrinking because more people watch movies at home. I have a new 42-inch flat-screen TV, which is how I experienced Contagion.
This film hooks you on a superficial level, something director Steven Soderbergh can do in his sleep. But it never reaches its potential. Contagion presents the audience with an outbreak of a hitherto-unknown virus spreading into a worldwide epidemic within days, and explores how various “normal” people, played in the film by international film stars, deal with the often tragic results.
Although the development of the epidemic is credible, the attempts at drama come out either flat or outright ridiculous. No one set of characters is given any sustained screen time, so their deaths or sufferings leave you cold. Matt Damon, playing a sudden widower left to protect his teenage daughter, comes off best, but most of the other equally able actors, including Kate Winslet, seem to flash by without any dramatic impact. The least satisfying plotline presents Marion Cotillard as a UN worker kidnapped by Third-World villagers to ransom her for the vaccine. And far too much screen time is given to an inscrutable subplot involving Jude Law as an Internet demagogue who may, or may not, be exploiting the panic to get rich.
The film does fall in line with Soderbergh’s appetite for secret capitalist conspiracies, however. This time it’s drug companies and politicians instead of agribusiness (The Informant!), but is even less dramatically compelling.
Although frequently irritating, the film is not boring. Soderbergh moves the story at a frantic pace, as befits its subject, and he knows how to make good actors look convincing in the oddest situations. One of the troubles here is that everybody (with one exception) is so unceasingly grim and panic-driven that it’s just wearing to look at them. The exception is Gwyneth Paltrow, who is shown whooping with joy at winning in a gambling casino. But that’s just a few scenes, and a flashback to before the story began!
The entire film has the feel of a once-major project, perhaps a miniseries, that shrunk and changed hands over time. Perhaps Soderbergh was able to get it made because of one of his major strengths: he can make anything on screen look more expensive than it really was to make.
I am reminded of The Girlfriend Experience