Director Steven Soderbergh has made plenty of movies with messages. Traffic said, “Don’t do drugs.” The Informant! said, “Don’t lie.” Erin Brockovich said, “Give a hoot – don’t pollute.
The message in Contagion is equally simple: Don’t rub your eyes. But if you must, make sure not to touch any buttons on elevators, salt shakers in restaurants, straps on subway cars.
Contagion is a modern horror film, and as Steven Spielberg discovered more than three decades ago with Jaws, Soderbergh understands that the best way to get a scare is not to show the monster until it’s time to show the monster. Actually, Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns never get around to showing the monster, because it’s one that’s microscopic. You can only hear about and see the results of what it can do.
The film opens with a big hacking cough from Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), who attributes it and a raging headache and exhaustion to jet lag from her business trip to Hong Kong. But four minutes into the film, and back home in Minneapolis with her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), she goes into convulsions. A minute later, she’s dead in a hospital room. She’s victim No. 1 in the story of a mysterious mutating pathogen that triggers a global pandemic.
Soderbergh has had an incredibly varied directing career, easily shifting back and forth from the Hollywood glitz of the Ocean’s trilogy to the art-house sensibilities of Bubble and Sex, Lies, and Videotape.
Contagion is Soderbergh in slick, full-blown thriller style. But he’s successfully gone at it both with an epic international feel (researchers and victims are followed all over the world) and an intimate touch (we get to know some of these characters in a very up-close-and-personal manner).
It’s at once a story of normal everyday folks — like Mitch, whose life is suddenly turned upside down — and a tension-filled race against time, with experts from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control trying to figure out what the hell is going on, why pockets of the world’s population are healthy one minute, coughing the next, then dead.
A percussive, electronic score by regular Soderbergh collaborator Cliff Martinez gives the film a nervous edge, yet Soderbergh, as he so often does, keeps most of the performances almost emotionless. Damon’s Mitch is an exception in that, throughout the film, he’s struggling to protect his frightened, confused daughter. But the doctors and researchers portrayed by Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, and an oddly slow-speaking Elliott Gould are portrayed as selfless, evenkeeled professionals who stay focused and calmly go about trying to save the world.
To juice things up a bit, there’s also Jude Law’s rabble-rousing blogger Alan Krumwiede, who’s a little too cartoonish in his rants about government cover-ups, and who the film might have been more effective without.
Though Contagion is speculative fiction, it carries dark shades of realism, especially with the existence of swine flu, bird flu, and who-knows-what-other-types-of-flu regularly making the news. The mystery disease has, as one doctor says, no treatment protocol or vaccine. Hell, it doesn’t even have a name. The people trying to defeat it refer to it only as “the virus.”
Queasy viewers might want to avert their eyes during the Paltrow character’s autopsy scene. At the packed-house screening I attended, it caused a communal gasp, which was kind of a fun experience. But not much else here is “fun.” And if the film does its job, more of us will likely start greeting friends with fist bumps rather than handshakes.