If you’re not already freaked the hell out by the idea of a global pandemic—some heretofore unknown and untreatable disease sweeping across the face of the Earth, leaving a trail of devastation and death—Steven Soderbergh’s (“Traffic”) latest movie, “Contagion”, might just do the trick. The film is a cold, almost clinical presentation of a virus that quickly mushrooms out of control, to the point that when you hear someone cough three rows behind you, you’ll want to bolt from the theater, douse yourself in hand sanitizer, and make a beeline for the hills.
“Contagion” is frighteningly plausible. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) go to great length to make it so, to show you exactly how a hybrid bat/pig virus might unfold in minute, buzz-killing detail. You’ll never be so aware of how many things you handle that thousands of other people have touched as after you watch “Contagion”. A doorknob, a counter, the railing on a set of stairs, the button of an elevator, the change in your pocket—you get the idea. The mere thought is enough to make germophobes of us all, and the sheer number of possibilities is nearly endless. It terrifies me just sitting here in front of my computer typing these words and thinking about it.
One of the perks of being Steven Soderbergh, having a bunch of awards and hit movies and famous friends and such, must be that when you make a movie, you can cast pretty much anyone you want and they’ll do it, no matter how small the part. He definitely makes full use of the available resources with “Contagion”, and has put together one hell of a big name cast. And let me tell you, Soderbergh is not afraid to kill off an Oscar-winner or two. After all, he’s got a couple to spare in this bunch. Everyone is someone you recognize, even the intern with three lines.
The plot of “Contagion” is a series of intersecting stories that give a human face to the spread of the disease. A husband and step-father (Matt Damon) whose wife may have been patient zero, or at least pretty close; a collection of CDC employees that range from doctors (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, and Jennifer Ehle) to the janitor (John Hawkes), all trying to figure out how to cope; a Homeland Security Agent (Enrico Colantoni), a military man (Bryan Cranston), a World Health Organization staffer (Marion Cotillard), and a shiesty internet talk-show host (Jude Law) who may be a prophet, but may also be an asshole trying to make money.
More a knot of stories than a single strand of narrative, none of these characters qualifies as a clear protagonist, but combined, they lend an emotional element to the outbreak. You see families—families from all walks of life and all parts of the world—trying to deal. Nowhere is safe, not crowded cities where people live piled on top of each other, nor remote hamlets where villagers live in huts.
As frightening as the looming specter of the virus is, the real fear of “Contagion” doesn’t all originate with the disease. A lot of it, yes, but not all. The true terror lies with the way the world reacts. There are petty bureaucrats more concerned with covering their own asses rather than saving lives, professional jealousies in the medical community, public panic and alarm, and plain old fashioned human greed. To be sure there is paranoia, hate, and exploitation, but within all of that there is also noble sacrifice for the greater good, and people acting not out of self-interest, but with an eye on helping and healing.
The only knock I have against “Contagion” is that with the intricate network of plot threads, all of the various strands and components of the story, there is one too many. Most of the filaments connect and tie into one another in a delicate balance, but one in particular remains separate. It seemingly disappears for a time, and when it pops up again at the end, you’re like, oh yeah, that’s going on. It is definitely related, but it is much less compelling than most of the others, and when it ties up, you’re left with a vague dissatisfaction. But honestly, it’s a pretty minor complaint in the grand scheme of things.
“Contagion” is part outbreak movie, part disaster story, and the shots of abandoned streets, covered in trash and debris, definitely evoke the post-apocalyptic. These days it seems like every plague movie centers around zombies or vampires or some sort of monster—and I certainly have some love for that as a concept—but a large part of what makes “Contagion” much more terrifying than most of these films is that the story is so freaking conceivable that you’re not sure how it hasn’t happened already. This movie will make you want to wear gloves, and never leave the house or touch anything ever again. Not a traditional horror movie, “Contagion” is still the scariest movie I’ve seen all year. I need to go wash my hands.