Film Review: Contagion starring Matt Damon and some more big names

Review By: Gordon K. Smith


A “doomsday pandemic” thriller without the science-fiction packaging of The Andromeda Strain, I Am Legend or Outbreak, Steven Soderberg’s Contagion concentrates on the political and social extremes such a disaster could bring us to, and in a very short amount of time.  The star power is certainly there, as in the disaster movies of old that Soderberg acknowledges as personal favorites and influences.  But there’s no phony melodrama or Oscar-baiting histrionics here — Contagion takes a horrifying subject and treats it as a scientific procedural, with most of the grisliness left to the imagination (save for one real “EWWWW” autopsy moment).

At a brisk 105 minutes, it wastes no time with filler and jumps right into the setup, with corporate exec Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) as victim one, coming down with something after a layover in Chicago.  That she may have been exposed through a one-nighter with a former lover forms the first of many human threads that run through the film, showing right off how suspicion and paranoia will run rampant alongside a super-contagious, super-lethal virus.   So many such threads are woven through this “all-star cast”, as ballyhoo used to call them, in that running time, that none are dwelled upon for more than a few scenes at a time, so the film remains gripping on a cerebral rather than personal level.

The star power continues with Matt Damon as Paltrow’s perplexed husband, Mitch, who’s somehow immune to the virus, as is his daughter.  Just when you think Mitch will be an “unbreakable” messiah of a ravaged world, as in Legend or Stephen King’s “The Stand,”  the focus shifts from him to a parade of scientists, military, politicos and Internet conspiracy muckrakers (Jude Law as the prophet of an alternative medicine cure), each with their own urgent agenda in the face of rapidly accelerating chaos.

The pivotal first-responders here are not the military, but the real Center for Disease Control, headed by Laurence Fisburne (in a beautifully modulated performance).  He dispatches investigator Kate Winslet in search of causes and cures, while the World Health Organization does the same with Marion Cotillard as the killer bug goes literally viral overseas.  Early on it becomes evident that no marquee name is death proof in this nightmare scenario, and that Soderberg and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who wrote Soderberg’s The Informant!) are going to keep you in queasy uncertainty — you don’t know if anyone’s going to survive here (I’ll just say it’s grim but not a total downer).   Nor are there much pure heroics here either — even the CDC, who presumably approved the script, doesn’t always come off smelling like roses.  The mini-prequel ending, in fact, shows you how even the most brilliant among us can sometimes get it wrong.

If there’s a major omission here, it’s that the filmmakers almost completely ignore what would surely be two widespread reactions to such an event — one, that it’s a terrorist bio-attack, and two, that it’s biblical prophecy straight out of Revelations.   Still, it’s well worth seeing for the brain-food offered here and the uniformly fine cast, which also includes John Hawkes, Sanaa Lathan, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle and, surprise, Elliott Gould in striking bits.  Not recommended, however, for those already germophobic — you’ll never touch a doorknob again.

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