Much like the deadly virus central to its plot, I suspect that Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion will cause a ripple effect through the population. Roads will become eerily clear as hypochondriacs lock themselves in hermetically sealed basement safe rooms. Purell will enjoy a bump in sales, and hazmat suits will replace rompers as the trend du jour. No one will ever eat another bar peanut.
OK, fine, I’m exaggerating. But unlike, say, an alien invasion, a giant asteroid or even a natural disaster, it’s hard to feel safe from a fatal, quickly spreading illness. Remember the panic surrounding swine flu? Bird flu? Bieber fever? There’s an unsettling sense that the world is waiting for the next pandemic, and Contagion taps into that fear like a seasoned nurse setting up an IV drip. What’s disappointing, then, is how clunky and bland the movie becomes. With eight major roles and almost as many intersecting plot lines, there’s no real lightning rod onscreen to make the audience feel the fear that drives the characters. As a result, the movie doesn’t so much punch you in the gut as gently slap you on the wrist. Whoever thought a global catastrophe could be boring?
The actor with the most screen time—by a hair—is Matt Damon, who plays Mitch Emhoff, a grieving Minnesota husband whose wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow, who will make GOOP detractors across the nation rejoice when she dies a very unpleasant death in the film’s opening sequence) seems to be Patient Zero for a virus that suddenly begins to spread in the United States upon her return from a business trip to Hong Kong. Doctors initially suspect encephalitis, but as an outbreaks pop up in the Midwest—and London, and parts of Japan and China (New York is spared for once, probably because microscopic germs are unable to topple the Statue of Liberty)—the CDC, led by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), gets involved. It soon becomes clear that the virus is aggressive, with a 25 percent mortality rate. Quarantines are enforced, and panic spreads throughout the country as government agencies race to develop a cure. In over his head, Cheever dispatches a colleague, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet, with an affectless American accent and drab wardrobe) to affected areas to conduct further research.
Meanwhile, an independent doctor (Elliot Gould) comes up with a vaccine, but limited supplies force a national lottery to determine who gets it first. In San Francisco, a blogger (Jude Law) becomes a celebrity—and a government target—when he publishes controversial theories about the withholding of information from the public. A World Health Organization doctor (Marion Cotillard) searching for the source of the outbreak in Hong Kong is kidnapped and held as ransom in exchange for vaccines. Mitch—who has been determined to be immune—holes up at home with his teenage daughter, not letting her leave despite the fact that according to the lottery she won’t get treated for 122 days. Cheever struggles with the fact that he and his wife (Sanaa Lathan) are receiving special treatment. Mears falls ill and finds herself on the other side of the hazmat suits. And terrified mobs of citizens (presumably the police and firefighters have all perished) are looting everything in sight.
It’s clear that Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns wanted to create a sense of global emergency, which is why they bounce across continents trying to communicate the incredible scale of the virus, and its social and political effects. They don’t just want to make a scary movie—they want to say something meaningful about government red tape and fear-mongering, and the resilience of humankind. But there are too many points of focus, held for too little time; with the exception of Mitch, who’s cut from the tried-and-true cloth of the regular guy hero, it’s hard to form an attachment to anyone—or even to care if they live or die. The cast is full of incredible actors (among those I haven’t yet mentioned: Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, John Hawkes) with very little to do, which sort of defeats the purpose. And for some reason at the very end, Soderbergh decides to treat Contagion as if it were supposed to be a mystery story all along, revealing exactly how the virus formed and began its destructive path through Paltrow’s—er, Beth’s—nervous system.
Like the rest of the troubled movie, it’s a feverish concept that ends up feeling clammy.