Review by Ryan Wilson

Movies like Contagion rely on not just the fantasy of a super virus that threatens to wipe out mankind but also on our real fears about the likelihood of such a threat. The experience of watching the events unfold on screen feels less like a film and more like a harbinger of doom, as if it were an oracle giving us a glimpse of what feels all too likely to occur.

The scariest part, according to the film, is that there’s so very little we can do to prevent such a happening. Like a hurricane or tornado, the virus is an occurrence of nature. Or as they say in the film, “the wrong bat met the wrong pig.”

The screenplay is linear only in that it moves through time day by day, covering almost half a year in the life of many players, from CDC and World Health Organization scientists and doctors to Midwestern families to subversive bloggers suspicious of any government involvement. The cast is stellar, including Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, and Kate Winslet, among others. Gwyneth Paltrow plays the first victim, which offers an amusing aside. Paltrow in recent years has received plenty of backlash for her off screen persona, most notable as a advice columnist for her website “Goop,” where she’s been accused of giving condescending recommendations on everything from parenting, to shopping, to cooking. If you’ve ever longed to see Paltrow suffer horribly without the guilt, then the first five minutes of Contagion are for you because her character’s demise is as ugly as it gets.

The gruesome speed of her death jars us into accepting the gravity of the health crisis. And yet the tone of the film never feels rushed or panicked. Rather, the film takes a distanced and overtly objective view, almost as if the film itself were a scientist examining human behavior under a microscope.

Credit for this belongs to director Steven Soderbergh, who essentially uses the same template for the film that he used in his great 2000 film Traffic. Like Traffic, Contagion keeps the audience riveted by knowing exactly when to edit between storylines. For example, right when we’re tearing-up over the tragedy that Matt Damon’s average father must endure, we cut to cool and collected CDC chair Laurence Fishburne, who needs to remain unemotional, almost to the point of appearing compassionless.

Fascinating and terrifying as it is, Contagion isn’t a perfect movie, mainly because the story, like the virus, spreads so many places and there’s simply not enough time to follow everyone where we’d like. For example, when Marion Cotilliard’s World Health Organization researcher gets kidnapped by a small jungle village just trying not to get lost in the shuffle of vaccinations, we lose sight of her for a good third of the film, and when we finally do see her again, so much has changed that her story thread feels insignificant.

The movie is especially short on the societal strife that comes from the sickness. We do have some looting scenes and some violence in the streets, but this just feels obligatory. Soderbergh mainly wants to mingle the scientific community with the government, who at first sees the virus as a terrorist attack, and then with the conspiracy theorists that worry about the business side of the disease and the pharmaceutical industry actually making a profit off of mass suffering. Because he gives each group a personality via a complex character, the audience keeps wondering who’s the most noble in this scenario.

Portions of the film will remind audiences of 1995’s Outbreak, where the government ultimately became the bad guy, but Contagion, to its credit, isn’t interested in placing blame or in confrontational melodrama. Part docu-drama, part health and wellness class, Contagion absorbs us so much that we can’t help but think of the daily activities that spread disease. Soderbergh is especially clever at lingering his camera whenever one of his characters makes physical contact through an everyday action, such as opening a door or passing a plate.

Germaphobes should not see this movie. The rest of us will leave it feeling paranoid and vulnerable, which is as powerful a feeling as you can get walking out of a movie. You’ll also notice if and when the people in your theater begin coughing during the film. And you might even suppress a cough yourself for their comfort. Either that or start coughing extra loudly so as to enhance their experience.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011