A sci-fi thriller showing the devastating effects of a global pandemic from the viewpoints of a grieving husband, the scientists trying to find a cure and a sleazy Australian blogger trying to make a quick buck selling his own questionable cure.
There are various different types of horror movies, some involve a sinister slasher stalking teenagers, some involve monsters like vampires, werewolves or zombies and some involve ludicrous death traps and excessive amounts of gore. The scariest ones, however, are the ones that seem plausible, the ones grounded firmly in reality and that’s exactly where Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion resides. Though essentially a sci-fi thriller, Contagion has many horror elements with the killer a deadly airborne flu that makes its way to the United States via Gwyneth Paltrow’s Beth, who brings the disease back from her business trip to Hong Kong.
Soderbergh tells his story on a grand scale, showing the effects of the disease from various different viewpoints. Showing the impact on an ordinary family is Beth’s grieving husband Mitch (Matt Damon), struggling to comprehend his wife’s death while looking out for his teenage daughter. Trying to figure out the disease and cure it are numerous scientists: from the Centre for Disease Control are Dr Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), Dr Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), Prof Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould) and Dr Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle). There’s also Dr Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a World Health Organisation epidemiologist based in Hong Kong trying to discover the origins of the disease. Another key player is Jude Law’s shady blogger Alan Krumweide, looking to make a profit by drumming up paranoia and selling his own questionable cure to the public.
Most of these story strands are handled well with strong acting from the movie’s talented ensemble, with Damon, Winslet and Fishburne the standouts. However, if the movie has a downfall, it’s that there’s just too much going on. The amount of characters and subplots occasionally gives the feeling the film lacks a real focus, particularly in a runtime that feels slender for a movie so jam packed. It would’ve been interesting to see how the film would’ve been had a couple of the less interesting characters been omitted, like Jude Law’s bizarre dentally challenged Aussie blogger and Marion Cotillard’s overseas epidemiologist. When the film flicks its focus to these sections, there’s the feeling that you’d rather be with Fishburne, warning his wife ahead of state wide lockdowns or Damon, in the film’s most touching scene, discovering photos of his dead wife’s last days.
Slight lack of focus aside, Contagion acts as a solid depiction of how these global pandemics can spiral out of control from all different sides, fleshed out by a cast that’s solid from top to bottom, including character actors du jour Bryan Cranston and John Hawkes. It is also a technically superb film, with Soderbergh deploying techno-thriller imagery to amp up the ticking clock aspect and long, lingering shots of door knobs, elevator buttons and hand rails supplying the horror vibes, creating a feeling of “nothing’s safe”, showing that this silent killer could be anywhere and everywhere. Contagion is one of the year’s better thrillers, certainly the scariest, and if nothing else, it will at least make you jump at every cough and think twice about shaking hands with someone.