3.5 stars (out of five)
You know the scene near the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes where the coughing guy gets on a plane? This is what happens next.
Contagion is a crisp, compelling procedural, an effective thriller about a lethal virus rapidly spreading around the planet. When I first heard the premise I was less than excited. Epidemic movies are not my cup of tea. Then I checked the press notes and saw that the filmmaker is Steven Soderbergh, whose directorial output includes Sex, Lies and Videotape; Out of Sight; Erin Brockovich; Traffic; Ocean's Eleven and its sequels; The Good German and The Informant! And then there's the cast: Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, SanaaLathan, Elliott Gould ... Holy cow, that's a lot of good actors. Color me interested.
Here's what you need to know so that you can enjoy the film for what it is and not be disappointed for what it isn't. Contagion follows the spread of the virus and its impact on society. It shows the desperate quest for a cure and the search for Patient Zero. Soderbergh provides an experience that is tense and consistently interesting. What he does not provide, despite the impressive cast, is a big, juicy melodrama. Contagion plays out more along the lines of The Andromeda Strain. Efficient. Chilly. The actors are deglamorized. They play people, not Hollywood People. Soderbergh does all he can to create and maintain a docudrama feel, with the nightmarish situation driving the story far more than the individuals within it.
You'll need to cooperate with Soderbergh on his decision to put the emphasis on events and actions instead of personal dramas. For me, the combination of the premise and the big-name cast stirred memories of disaster films from the '70s and I felt a vague sense of disappointment over the minimization of the human element. After mulling it over, though, I realized that if an epidemic like this happens, our personal traumas will just be a tiny part of a massive tragedy. That's the most disturbing part of the movie - watching people become statistics.
Contagion hops to various locations around the world, but its focus remains clear. Soderbergh avoids many of the devices used in films dealing with disasters. Yes, we get graphics informing us how many days have passed since the beginning of the crisis, but there are no sweeping shots of landmarks either covered with rioters or devoid of people. We hear references to the President, but we never see him, or any other high-level politician. Not that Scott Z. Burns' screenplay avoids movie contrivances entirely - there's an unscrupulous blogger who has way too much influence on way too many people. And there's a scientist who decides to break the rules and test a new serum on herself. Still, in Soderbergh's hands, it all plays out in a credible fashion.
I'd like to wrap this up with a snappy ending, something clever that ties into the joke about Rise of the Planet of the Apes from the opening of this review, but I can't think of how to get back to funny right now. Contagion could happen. That's just creepy.