Steven Soderbergh has certainly proven his versatility as a director. From the bitter nostalgia of 1993's King of the Hill to the lighthearted fun of the Ocean's series, he's demonstrated that he's up to the task in a variety of genres. And, as his 2000 adaptation of the British series Traffik proved, he can take material with multiple storylines and grim story matter and make it…entertaining. Contagion is almost as effective.
The film begins with a cough—Beth Emhoff's (Gwyneth Paltrow), to be exact. She's flying home to Minneapolis from a business trip to Hong Kong, and she's quickly becoming ill. By the time she gets home to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), her condition is much more dire. After falling to the floor in convulsions, she's transported by ambulance to the hospital where they are unable to save her.
At the same time, all over the world, other people are becoming sick—and other people are also dying. At the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) is alerted to the outbreak, and sends his epidemic intelligence officer, Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), to Minneapolis to investigate. As more and more people fall ill, the search for the source of the outbreak becomes more intense.
The film is populated with an impressive array of stars. In addition to the three performers previously mentioned, it also features Jennifer Ehle as a CDC doctor who uses herself as a test subject for a potential vaccine; Bryan Cranston as the government officer Fishburne reports to; Jude Law as a medical blogger with questionable scruples; Marion Cotillard as a World Health Organization doctor who travels to China to hunt down the source of the outbreak; and Elliott Gould as a researcher who, while not officially employed by the CDC, does "projects" for them when governmental red tape proves too daunting.
Damon is terrific as a man who is driven to overprotect his daughter after the sudden, shocking deaths of his wife and stepson. Law is given a mouthful of crooked teeth to make his "crackpot" image more complete.
Fishburne brings gravitas with glimpses of human emotion to his role, and the always elegant Winslet stirs compassion as the doomed doctor whose only interest is to start saving lives. Ehle thankfully avoids doing a Joan of Arc in her depiction of the earnest researcher who truly cares about the future of humanity.
Paltrow has one of the shortest and most shocking roles in a film since Janet Leigh was killed off in Hitchcock's Psycho. In one scene, she's hugging her husband and child upon her homecoming—minutes later, her dead-eyed, black-tongued visage fills the screen as a surgical saw whirs and her scalp is pulled down from the top of her head.
The only false note is the appearance of real-life CNN medical specialist Sanjay Gupta, grandstanding as himself to interview Cheever, which was intended to add realism to the film but really breaks the fourth wall.
Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns (who earlier teamed on the Damon comedy The Informant!), traverse the continent, showing the spread of the contagion and how people are reacting to it. They also give us a chilling glimpse into the disintegration of society, as once-normal people become criminals, breaking into stores and houses in search of food and a bogus homeopathic cure espoused by Law's sleazy blogger. Wisely, they avoid going ridiculously over the top for cheap dramatic effect. As a matter of fact, the film avoids proselytizing, except for Law's crackpot rant about government and big pharma conspiracies (which, on second thought, are probably true) and lets the events propel the story forward.
Some reviewers have complained that a multitude of characters and the film's efficient 104-minute running time render it too brief to make any emotional connections, but I think they're wrong. It's a tribute to the performances of the actors, particularly Damon and Winslet, that they can engender sympathy for their characters in just a few quickly sketched scenes.
And Soderbergh and Burns have carefully mapped out the characters and their various stories so that—even though they cut rapidly one to another—they're coherent and maintain the suspenseful pace. Soderbergh, as cinematographer, "color codes" the film to keep the various strands in control, even as the epidemic spins out of control.
Ironically, Soderbergh has announced that his next film, Liberace, starring Michael Douglas as the flamboyant pianist and Damon as his lover, Scott Thorson, is going be his swan song—so that he can focus more on his painting. If this is true, it's a tragedy for the world of cinema.
But maybe it's a good thing for the art world.