Drinking glasses. Doorknobs. Credit cards. Handshakes. The touch of a loved one. These are but a small few of the innocent accomplices aiding a deadly virus as it begins to eradicate mankind in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, a film in which the simple, common act of a mother playfully feeding her child a potato chip can lead to the deaths of countless numbers of people.
When a businesswoman, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), contracts a deadly disease while visiting Hong Kong, she unknowingly spreads it to several people, both locals and tourists, through friendly gestures and chance encounters. These unlucky souls carry the disease with them (a clever sequence that demonstrates just how many everyday objects we come into contact with on a daily basis, yet never really give any thought to), and soon the virus takes hold in other major cities around the globe as the infected tourists return home. Beth, returning to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), and her young son, is convinced that her symptoms are the result of the common flu, and therefore seeks no medical treatment. Within two days, Beth is dead, and her doctors are at a complete loss as to what could have possibly killed her so quickly.
By this point, cases of infection have started emerging in other parts of the world. One death in Hong Kong is caught on video with a cell phone, and makes its way to the internet. Enter Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), an internet blogger/conspiracy theorist who believes that while only this one case has been made public, there must surely be others, and that the world’s governments are deliberately hiding the truth. He begins waging an online war against the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization (who are only just realizing themselves exactly how devastating the disease is), and his assumed “facts”, and claims that he himself actually knows the cure that the powers-that-be are hiding from the world, start a flood of misinformation that slowly puts the world into a panic. Meanwhile, representatives from the C.D.C, lead by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), are in constant contact with overseas representatives of the W.H.O, lead by Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), in an attempt to both recreate the virus under controlled conditions so that a vaccine can be found, and to attempt to project how quickly the virus will spread.
The brilliance of Contagion is that although the plot revolves around the concept that something as simple as a virus could be responsible for mankind’s extinction, the true center of the story is humanity itself. This is a film that portrays the best AND worst traits of human beings, and it does so in a way that will leave you questioning your own morals. How would you handle the situations presented in the film? Would you partake in looting? Would you murder or assault an innocent person to save your own life? I asked myself those questions, and others, on the drive home from the theater, and I can honestly say that I couldn’t give myself an entirely firm answer. Steven Soderbergh directs Contagion with amazing attention to details that most people would never consider as possibilities (a scene in which Mitch is trying to arrange funeral services for Beth is particularly jarring). He also keeps the film firmly grounded in reality: the virus portrayed in the story was modeled after SARS, a respiratory virus that caused nearly 900 deaths worldwide in 2003, and could very well exist in our world. All the science presented is inspired by fact. The cinematography is fantastic, and gives the audience absolutely no “big budget Hollywood” camerawork. All of this gives Contagion a feeling of plausibility that makes it, at times, truly terrifying.
The true heart of most films is the performances of the actors who inhabit the characters, and Contagion is no exception. A few of the minor supporting roles aside, the acting in this film is top-notch. Matt Damon and Kate Winslet are especially memorable in their roles, and Laurence Fishburne and Marion Cotillard turn in terrific performances as well. Jude Law’s Alan is a character who I was never quite sure if I should like or not, and Jude played him masterfully. Throw in the support of Bryan Cranston and Elliot Gould, plus an above-average turn by Anna Jacoby-Heron in her debut role as Jory Emhoff, the daughter of Matt Damon’s Mitch, and you have a remarkable ensemble that deserves to be recognized.
The ONE issue I have with Contagion, and it’s minor, is that the resolution of the story comes with very few solid answers about what happens with certain characters that I grew to care about as the plot played out. While I understand that this was a choice of the director, a few more minutes added to the conclusion could have answered a few nagging questions. Aside from that, I found Contagion to be a smart, slow-burn drama/thriller that easily stands alongside Steven Soderbergh’s other works. If you’re a fan of the director, or any of the amazing cast, or if you’d just like to see a film that vindicates your tendencies towards germophobia, then Contagion is a worthwhile trip to the movies.