Film Review: Contagion

Taut with energy from start to finish, 'Contagion''s portrait of a global epidemic is just the right mix of scary, informative and emotionally powerful.

On Day 2 of what will become a global epidemic, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) flies home to Minneapolis after a business trip in Hong Kong. What appears to be a cold quickly deteriorates, and she does what big-name stars rarely do in the opening minutes of a film. She dies.

But that’s just the beginning. What follows is a swift, thrilling exploration of the impact of a deadly virus on the world. Director Steven Soderbergh uses the same ensemble-cast structure that won him an Oscar for Traffic, and he couldn’t have chosen a better format. Unrestrained by sticking to one viewpoint, the audience is privy to the stories of an average family, a World Health Organization researcher (Marion Cotillard), a conspiracy-theory blogger (Jude Law), and laboratory scientists and field workers for the Centers for Disease Control. Most movies choose between following workers on the front lines or families at home, but Contagion does both. For all their differences, each of the characters is confident and vivid, bringing to mind the diverse, skilled cast of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven—though the direly serious situation subtracts most of the humor.

Exceptionally well-researched, the science in the movie is an outlier on the bell curve. The jargon-laced dialogue of the researchers actually means something. As CDC field officer Dr. Mears, Kate Winslet gives the locals (and by extension, us) a stirring lesson in the meanings behind a virus’ reproduction rate. The fictional germ responsible for the outbreak, dubbed MEV-1, was designed by an expert in infectious diseases. This scientific foundation dictates the plot. One of the first goals of the scientists is to figure out how to culture the virus in the lab, which screenwriter Scott Z. Burns mixes with the usual government politics about who is allowed to do research on the virus, and where. The subsequent search for a vaccine is reminiscent of the 2009 swine flu epidemic, except this time we get to see how the drama plays out inside the lab. As a dedicated and fearless researcher, Jennifer Ehle makes a lasting impression. Laurence Fishburne, a leader at the CDC, highlights the difficulties of serving the public good while wanting to keep loved ones safer than all the rest. It’s this commingling of science and emotion that makes Contagion so powerful. As Dr. Mears maps the virus’ spread, she discovers that one case could only have arisen through infidelity, complicating the emotional wreckage of an already devastating situation. Even the implications of picking up a stranger’s lost item or shaking a hand are emphasized with a lingering camera, showing how disease breaks down the most casual social niceties.

Soderbergh deserves applause for avoiding so many of the clichés one expects from disaster films or epidemic-movie predecessors like 1995’s Outbreak. The epicenter of the outbreak occurs in Minneapolis, not the usual coastal city suspects. He also tweaks the level of fear throughout the movie, having characters move from caution to panic, to acceptance of the fact that they may die from an uncontrolled deadly virus. The movie earns its biggest scares and payoffs through realism, not exaggeration.

Soderbergh’s digital camera gives the drama a modern, visceral feel. He occasionally experiments with subjective point-of-view and out-of-focus shots, providing just the right touch of inventiveness. The pulsating score by Cliff Martinez amplifies the adrenaline rush. In one scene, Soderbergh mutes the dialogue (probably more characters’ techno-gibberish) and lets the score take over, a technique that works surprisingly well. Most clever of all, the movie plays around with the timeline, only gradually answering the mystery of “Day 1” of the outbreak.

The intelligent chills and fine performances of Contagion will woo adult-minded moviegoers curious about the “what-ifs” of an epidemic. And more than a few audience members will find themselves applying hand sanitizer, cringing at coughs and avoiding door handles as they make their way out of the theatre.