Beth Emhoff is returning home to Minneapolis from a business trip to Hong Kong. She’s feeling sick, but doesn’t really chalk it up to much than being a bad case of the flu. Soon though, things go from bad to worse, as Beth (and others she had been in contact with) start to drop dead from their disease. As more cases come forward, it becomes clear that a major pandemic is occurring and now it’s up to official government agencies to determine both the cause and a cure.
That is a real nutshell premise to the latest movie from director Steven Soderbergh, Contagion. Soderbergh is best known for his work with George Clooney in movies like the Ocean’s Eleven series of films and other films like Traffic and his breakthrough movie Sex, Lies and Videotape. I’m an absolutely huge fan of Soderbergh’s work and so I was very much looking forward to this movie. While the trailers for this seem to suggest something that’s going to be a little more kinetic, the final film is much, much more clinical in it’s presentation, but still a very effective scientific thriller.
If there’s any of his past movies that Contagion most resembles, it’s probably Traffic. Both movies take a “big picture” look at their problems (for those that haven’t seen Traffic, it covered the problem of illegal drugs). Contagion is spread over a four-month period showing everything from the rise of the problem, it’s personal effects, containment, and possible cures. It’s a pretty realistic presentation of what would actually happen if a totally unknown virus got out of control that doesn’t go for heavy melodrama in the slightest.
There is no fantasy element present in this film; if you’re expecting zombies or some heavy duty Hollywood action to get to the bottom of the problem, then you’re best bet is to look elsewhere. That’s not Soderbergh’s interest here. As I said above, this is almost clinical in it’s presentation, but that doesn’t mean that’s it’s pure documentary. There is subtle drama here, though that drama is underscored by the big picture. It’s a fascinating look at seeing true professionals carrying out their duties during a major crisis with what seems like no hope in sight.
Some of the criticisms that I’ve read about this mentions that the film is poorly paced and that characters are underdeveloped. I couldn’t disagree more. Soderbergh is juggling a number of characters and events while trying to present this big picture and I thought he never lost sight of that. It’s just that these aren’t Hollywood “big” characters and events. To present this as a Hollywood “big” movie would undermine the true horror of what could happen in this situation. I thought this was evenly paced and that the characters felt “lived in.” There are character arcs, but they are extremely subtle (in particular those involving Matt Damon’s and Marion Cotilliard’s characters). While the presentation of events certainly does jump around, it’s in a logical and subtly escalating manner.
As I’d expect from Soderbergh, Contagion is extremely well made. It’s a very good-looking film, very crisp and clear in it’s presentation. There’s some very nice bits of editing for effect with standout moments being showing how the disease is spread near the start of the film and moments when Marion Cotilliard’s character is tracing the origin of the spread. Cliff Martinez provides a terrific score for the film that really punches up everything, but again not in a big Hollywood way.
Contagion features a star-studded cast and I think they all do a nice job. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Beth Emhoff who (and I don’t think I’m really spoiling anything by saying this) meets her end very early in the film. I have to give her high points though for allowing Soderbergh to use her in some pretty interesting ways. Beth may meet her end early, but it’s not the last that we see of her and her presence is felt throughout the movie. Matt Damon plays her husband Mitch and he’s the everyman of the film. Like he did in Soderbergh’s The Informant! Damon looks like he put on a few pounds in this movie (which I think actually adds to the reason for an act of indiscretion on Beth’s part, but it’s subtle) which I think actually helps his performance. He probably has the biggest emotional moments in the movie, but they’re not overblown at all.
Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet play Drs. Ellis Cheever and Erin Mears, employees of the Center for Disease Control. Winslet gets the showier part, actually playing a field agent who has to get a handle on the situation in Minneapolis. Fishburne has to maintain the professional “face” of the CDC and he does a good job, but also has a nice (but subtle) character turn as well.
Marion Cotilliard plays Dr. Leonora Orantes who’s part of the World Health Organization and she’s given the task of traveling to Hong Kong to trace the origin of the disease. She gets involved in something that’s pretty unexpected there and has a great character turn as her story concludes. Jude Law plays Alan Krumwiede, a blogger/journalist who seeks to get the “sinister” truth out about what’s going on. It’s also a pretty showy part for the film and while at first he certainly does seem to be this crusader there’s also some shadiness there as well. It’s never quite resolved, but then that’s not the film’s point either. What you think about Krumwiede is basically you’re own conclusion, but his use here certainly helps show Soderbergh’s big picture, especially with how new media is used to lay out the story.
Other cast notables include Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould and Bryan Cranston. Ehle plays Dr. Ally Hextall, another employee of CDC who is fervently looking to discover a cure. Gould plays Dr. Ian Sussman, an independent researcher who defies CDC orders in his investigation and recreation of the virus. Cranston plays Lyle Haggerty, the military liason with the CDC and he certainly brings the right air of authority to the part. As huge Breaking Bad fan, I really enjoyed seeing Cranston being a part of this, even if it was a small part, and I look forward to seeing him in next week’s Drive as well.
I think Contagion is an exceptional film. Director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns deliver an effective thriller that doesn’t play to huge melodrama and instead plays to a realistic unfolding of events. The ensemble cast are all quite good and totally in service to the story. While I mentioned above that this reminded me of Soderbergh’s previous film Traffic, it also puts me in the mind of what you’d get if someone took a big Irwin Allen 70s disaster film and made it with an art house touch, and I don’t think that’s a bad combination at all. If you’re looking for something that’s Hollywood “big” well then you might want to look elsewhere, but for me, Contagion was very satisfying. Highly recommended.