Steven Soderbergh’s latest is a ‘what if?’ movie. Taking the moderate levels of public concern over the outbreaks of swine and bird flu and presents us with a starkly believable and downright scary vision of how it might have panned out if a highly contagious respiratory virus went pandemic.
The film opens with Gwyneth Paltrow, one of an impressive ensemble cast, looking pretty under the weather. With echoes of films like Psycho and Scream which also killed off a major star early on she quickly snuffs it courtesy of some disturbing seizures(stop yelling ‘spoiler’ it happens in the first few minutes). Before we know what’s what the mystery illness that brought about her death is spreading around the world and hysteria slowly starts to build as various medical authorities desperately try to track down the origin of the virus and create a vaccine.
More than just the spread of the disease the film smartly examines the public reaction to the pandemic and the focus of this part of the story is a snaggletoothed Jude Law affecting an inexplicable Aussie accent playing the part of a conspiracy blogger with delusions of grandeur who preaches against the honest efforts of the scientists striving for a medical cure and promoting a homeopathic remedy. His plot line adds an interesting extra element to the film and goes a long way to creating a believable spectrum of people’s responses to such a crisis.
The several other big stars each have a part to play, Matt Damon is a widower who does everything he can to protect his daughter from the illness, Kate Winslet is the front line expert trying to contain the spread of the disease, Marion Cotillard plays detective trying to track down its origin while Jennifer Ehle is the lab scientist is search of the vaccine and there are numerous other high profile cameos and cast members that lend the film their star quality to great effect. No-one really takes the lead although Damon might be seen as the everyman hero but it’s much more about the effect the concept has on the audience rather than the acting.
Early shots as the virus is starting to spread linger on the myriad things we touch every few seconds with potential contagion-spreading results and the sense of how easily the virus can be spread is extremely effective to the point where it can really build a sense of paranoia. Coughs and sneezes in screenings of Contagion have reportedly caused worried heads to turn and the brutal reality of the concept is pretty scary. It’s meant to be exhilarating rather than entertaining and it definitely succeeds.
The only glaring flaw of Contagion is in how it ties up. The film limps to a pretty plodding conclusion which is okay as it admirably avoids any kind of cinematic, popcorny climax, which, frankly, would have felt nicked from a different film but some of the individual plot lines play out into an unsatisfying nothing, particularly Marion Cotillard and Jude Law’s stories. Despite this the things the film does well it does well enough for this not to really matter and you will leave the cinema very aware of who you might be in touching distance of, and that’s mission accomplished.
Tremendously effective in its depiction of the terrifying reality of a lethal pandemic that will leave you paranoid. The all-star cast are great to watch but it’s the disease itself that you will remember.