Movie review by Greg Carlson
Like several of Steven Soderbergh’s large canvas features – and even a few of his smaller ones – “Contagion” paints a grim scenario of human fragility, frailty, and fear. Workable as a metaphor for the post-9/11 world as readily as the economically depressed slow-motion global financial catastrophe (already explored in its early stages in “The Girlfriend Experience”), “Contagion” perhaps most closely resembles the director’s drug war/trade ensemble “Traffic.” Darting like a hummingbird among several interconnected storylines unfolding simultaneously in locations around the world, Soderbergh swiftly connects the dots of a mounting health calamity. Sales of hand sanitizer stand to spike in the next few weeks.
It might be convenient to cast Soderbergh as a pessimist, but for all the scenes of looted grocery stores, empty airports, and the hauntingly familiar sight of missing person flyers, “Contagion” embraces the tried and true structure of the procedural, linking together the cumulative efforts of bug-hunting brainiacs in laboratories and on the front lines. The specter of terrorism permeates the movie’s imagery, and even though the notion of the virus as a bio-weapon is quickly dismissed, the ranting of a conspiracy-minded crank blogger played by Jude Law buoys the hopes of skeptics.
Naysayers attack Soderbergh’s icy fatalism as the Achilles’ Heel of “Contagion,” but despite the movie’s macrocosmic hive view, each of the principal characters, and several of the supporting ones, makes a convincing case for the director’s speculative gut-check response to the widespread panic and subsequent lawlessness that blossoms as the epidemic worsens. Matt Damon’s grieving husband and father is the film’s representative Average Joe, and even though his immunity to the disease affords the audience a wide latitude of relief, an old-fashioned can-do spirit accompanies the stories concerning the trained professionals in or near harm’s way – particularly the indefatigable doctor played by Jennifer Ehle.
Like the disaster thrillers produced by Irwin Allen, “Contagion” applies the “Anyone Can Die” trope, but does so sparingly. The movie’s trailer sold “Contagion” on the premise that Gwyneth Paltrow’s international business traveler doesn’t make it, but somewhat surprisingly, only one other major player expires during the course of the action, and that death is treated with an almost ruthless lack of drama. Superior to the similarly themed “Outbreak,” but more aligned with horror/sci-fi material including “28 Days Later,” “I Am Legend,” and even “Children of Men,” Forrest Wickman has already pointed out that “Contagion” can be added to the roster of strong network narratives or, as Alissa Quart calls them, “hyperlink movies.”
Soderbergh’s scientific process affirmation positions the film’s several epidemiologists as nerd superstar heroes, but the role of the U.S. government, both in terms of crisis response – handled with a perpetually cool head by Laurence Fishburne’s CDC official – and in the potential for unfair treatment of American citizens, is deliberately murkier. “Contagion” might well have been subtitled “Keep Calm and Carry On,” and in the end, the dedicated civil servants industriously, and a little comically, banish the fictional germ to the deep-freeze dustbin alongside SARS and H1N1. Soderbergh cannot, however, resist a spine-tingling coda imagining the unholy, human-caused association of “the wrong bat” and “the wrong pig” that spawned the trouble in the first place.