Review of Contagion


Rating: PG-13
Length: 106 minutes
Release Date: September 9, 2011
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Genre: Drama and Thriller

The scariest part about Steven Soderbergh's thriller, 'Contagion,' is that it could happen. At any time, an unknown disease could spread around the world and threaten civilization. Thanks to air travel, it moves across continents before we know it exists. It spreads to new victims quickly. No one is safe.

The film keeps much of its focus on individuals and families. It follows several story lines, from individuals fighting the virus or losing family members, to doctors and scientists looking for a cure, to sensationalist internet bloggers. Following such varied story lines gives insight into the true scope of such a disaster.

The multiple story lines would not succeed without the strong ensemble cast. Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, and Laurence Fishburne and many others play important roles in the film. No single character is the center of the drama, and the strong performances create the immediate believability and emotional connection the film needs.

'Contagion' begins with the sound of a cough over a black screen. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) eats dinner while on business in Hong Kong. She flies back home to Minnesota. Shortly after her return home, she gets sick and dies. No one knows the cause of her sickness. Her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), reacts, as most anyone would, with disbelief. How did this happen? How did it kill so quickly?

The story moves quickly, just as the virus does. Soon, pockets of people infected with the virus appear all over the world. The CDC begins to track the disease and search for a cure. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) takes the lead in the fight. He sends Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), a medical investigator, to the center of the outbreak in Minneapolis. She works with determination, despite dealing people who do not understand the terror they may face. She risks herself to try and uncover the source of the disease, hopeful that it might lead to a cure.

The only human villain in the movie, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), stands in stark contrast to those working at the CDC. He blogs about an herb that he claims offers a cure. His website's popularity explodes. Other, more responsible, characters try to marginalize him and his message. People living in fear believe in him though, leading to riots when the supply of the herb runs short.

Other story lines come and go as well, but the real power of the film comes from the balance given to the huge issue of dealing with an unknown, untreatable illness on a global scale and the intimate, crushing reality of individuals facing such a virus. This strength may, in part, lead to film's biggest weakness, however. The first half of the film is full of tension and moves quickly. By the second half, however, the pace feels slower. The tension fades. The interweaving and varied stories create a sense of not feeling fully connected to anyone.

Despite this minor fault, the film achieves its goals. Shot with the precision needed to capture how such a disease would spread, the film captures what lives would be like during such an epidemic. 'Contagion delivers' more fear than other recent disaster movies because of its simple premise and the frightening speed such a disaster can spread around the world. At the end of the film, Soderbergh offers an explanation on the origin of the disease. More important than the specific origin of this fictionalized virus, it tells us that disease is unpredictable. When an earthquake or flood strikes they are localized and occur in predictable areas. Disease can strike all humanity, from anywhere, at any time.