STARRING: Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet

2011, 105 Minutes, Directed by:
Steven Soderbergh

In 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 nightmare.

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 distributed.

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).

Soderbergh's sterile 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 handshake).

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.

- Mark Dujsik


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