STARRING: Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon,
Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet
2011, 105 Minutes, Directed by:
form, Contagion most closely represents the disaster movies of the 1970s,
with its large cast of stars and character actors traversing the terrain of
death and devastation as all hell breaks loose around them.
The movie's scope is expansive,
with establishing shots of anonymous people in cities around the globe from Hong
Kong to London to Chicago. (Titles inform us of the population of a given
metropolis for the sole purpose of trivia, though we half expect a countdown
as—if my math is correct—around two percent of the world's population eventually
dies). The juxtaposition of this global view is director Steven Soderbergh and
screenwriter Scott Z. Burns' focus on those ordinary people whose lives, at
best, fade from normalcy or, at worst, end.
There's a sense of inevitable
dread in the prologue, which catches the prime suspect for being Patient Zero on
her second day of infection going about her life. As the movie travels back and
forth between her and others with whom she came in contact (now spread out
across the world), Soderbergh's camera lingers on their hands, moving from their
faces to varying surfaces and people. It's a low-key technique for suggesting
how easily and rapidly a disease can spread—certainly a mysophobe's worst
The assumed primary case is
Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), a businesswoman returning to her home in
Minneapolis after a trip to Hong Kong and an unanticipated layover in Chicago.
Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and son (Griffin Kane) quickly become concerned
when, after experiencing symptoms akin to the flu, she has trouble standing
upright, and the boy starts showing similar signs as well.
Mitch, it turns out, is immune
to the disease, having to spend time in quarantine when he should be grieving
and caring for his daughter from a previous marriage Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron),
who has decided to stay with her father in his time of need. Mitch's initial and
honest reaction of being unable to process the death around him soon turns into
an awkward transitional tool, as he wonders aloud what happened.
"Doesn't amount to much more than a thoroughly detailed argument
for the importance of washing one's hands . . ."
Enter the medical
professionals, who are also wondering aloud—but in more scientific terms—what is
happening. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), the director of the Center for
Disease Control and Prevention, puts his best scientists (Jennifer Ehle and
Demetri Martin, who discuss their Thanksgiving get-togethers while testing blood
and tissue samples) on the job and sends Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to follow
Beth's contacts in the United States. Meanwhile, Leonora Orantes (Marion
Cotillard) of the World Health Organization goes to Hong Kong to track Beth's
movements there before getting caught up in a coup to place a small village at
the top of the list of places where the eventual vaccination will be
The movie is part human drama,
part mystery, and part technical babble about viral mutations, and, with that
wide breadth of concentration, each element falls short. Burns' script is a
collection of vignettes of procedure (the CDC and the WHO scramble to find and
ultimately distribute a vaccination), paranoia (a blogger named Alan Krumwiede,
Jude Law, attempts to convince his readers, whose numbers grow six-fold as panic
spreads, that it is all a conspiracy tied to pharmaceutical companies and shadow
government dealings), and paralyzing fear (Mitch keeps Jory under house arrest
to keep her healthy).
cinematography (with a hint of sickly yellow in the laboratories) conforms with
Burns' clinical approach to characterization and plotting. Each important
character has a calculated moment or two to bring them out of the realm of
talking head; almost all of them come too little.
Cheever breaks the cardinal
rule of information lockdown and lets his wife (Sanaa Lathan) know of the
impending closing down of Illinois. Alan meets with the pregnant Lorraine
(Monique Gabriela Curnen), who is desperate for a dose of what he believes to be
the cure, and while the two seem to have a past relationship, the details are
sketchy to the point of incomprehensibility. Ehle's Ally Hextall meets with her
father (Dan Flannery) to bring good news and praise his efforts of treating
patients even after other doctors abandoned the cause. The dialogue is stilted
in moments like these and especially at times of supposed metaphorical
significance (Cheever explains there's no need to weaponize the bird-flu, as the
birds have already done so, and later ponders if the virus knew the history of a
This hypothetical docudrama is
overburdened by its extensive collection of flat characters and emotional
distance from them. In the end, Contagion doesn't amount to much more
than a thoroughly detailed argument for the importance of washing one's hands
after touching raw meat.