Movie Information

The Story: A new and seemingly unstoppable airborne virus goes global and threatens to wipe out a large portion of the world. The Lowdown: Exciting, engrossing thriller with a solid all-star cast and taut direction. It's not particularly deep, but it works in its own matter-of-fact approach.
Genre: Disaster Thriller
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould
Rated: PG-13

Packed with enough name actors for one of his numerical Ocean’s movies, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is at the very least polished and professional moviemaking. Soderbergh has called it a horror movie and that’s not a bad description, though that’s probably an off-putting tag to a lot of people. The film certainly boasts enough horror film imagery to qualify in a kind of big-budget zombie picture manner—except that there aren’t any zombies, of course—with its deserted streets piled with garbage and mass graves. In tone, however, it comes across more like an Irwin Allen disaster movie. In fact, Soderbergh has cited the Allen-produced The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974) as inspiratuons, though the Allen-directed The Swarm(1978) may be closer than anything else—only with a greater degree of governing intelligence and considerably more polish. Or, in more recent terms, it’s like Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak (1995) minus the monkey and with more than two functioning brain cells.

Much like the Irwin Allen pictures, what we have here is an all-star movie (think Grand Hotel with added plague action) designed to play on pandemic paranoia. The more suggestible critics (or, if you’re uncharitably-minded, those in hopes of finding themselves in break-out quotes) seem to have indulged in a post-viewing frenzy of hand-washing and general germophobia. Whether or not it strikes such an ablution orgy in moviegoers probably depends on their penchant for paranoia (Who sat in that theater seat before you? Why is that guy behind you coughing?), but it’s hard to deny that Contagion is a first-rate, fast-paced thriller—even if it’s never any deeper than that.

Actually, the film’s pace, its crowded cast and its lack of depth are what helps to make it entertaining and exciting without ever becoming as depressing as it easily might have been. After all, we’re dealing with millions of deaths here, which isn’t the sort of thing that’s apt to cheer anyone up. The fact that the film never goes out of its way to create much sympathy for the characters—though some of the actors are innately sympathetic—creates a distancing effect. The fact that “patient zero” Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is, if anything, unsympathetic stresses this, as does the no-nonsense procedural approach to the action.

The film admirably wastes no time getting to the point. From the very onset, the doomed Beth is starting to succumb to the disease and it’s not long before she cashes in her chips (this is hardly a spoiler under the circumstances). From there things progress at a fast rate, so there is really no time to do more than sketch in the film’s many characters. The sketches, however, are generally good ones that at least give the characters an illusion of depth.

Some characters, of course, are better done than others—and not always the ones with the largest roles. Elliott Gould’s research scientist, for example, registered strongly with me in a relatively small part. That he had the film’s best line—dismissing Jude Law’s blogger with, “Blogging isn’t writing. It’s graffiti with punctuation”—may have helped. Law’s character (think: the Wikileaks guy) is effectively obnoxious, but seems a little extraneous except as a timely addition to the story. The whole cast, however, is solid—much like the film itself, which is typically Soderberghian in observing much and commenting on little. While (deliberately) lacking much in the way of a visual style, there’s an inherent detachment to his pictures—something that pays off here.

No, this is no deep-dish picture about the human condition—despite its depiction of just how quickly civilization can deteriorate—but it’s an engrossing thriller. That’s all it sets out to be, too, so that’s fine. Rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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