Director: Steven Soderbergh
Watching Contagion, the first thing you’ll notice is the many close-up shots of hands. Hands touching doorknobs, holding glasses, cupping faces. As Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) points out, we all touch our faces on average 3-5 times every waking minute. Considering hands are a primary means of spreading disease, isn’t it a wonder we haven’t been wiped out by some nasty bug long ago?
After dallying in apparently experimental films, Steven Soderbergh turns his attention to potential blockbuster territory. Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from a business trip to Hong Kong feeling unwell. Her husband Mitch is worried, but she dismisses it as jetlag. In movies, it’s choices like this that get you killed, and so it proves as Beth succumbs to seizures and dies in the emergency room. If that sounds like a spoiler, don’t worry; all this happens within the first 10 minutes of Contagion. It had to, because there are many other storylines that are gasping for air. There’s the rush for a cure, led by CDC head Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle, possibly the best thing in the film). There’s the attempts by Dr. Mears to control things on the ground following Beth’s death. There’s also the plot about paranoid blogger Krumweide (Jude Law) who claims to have discovered an alternate cure for the virus. Law, with his cocky disposition and snaggletooth grin, is a repeat scene-stealer here, and lightens the oft-overbearing atmosphere of Contagion. Given the plot, a sombre tone is to be expected, but that’s no excuse for the lack of emotional involvement here. Scott Z. Burns’ script squeezes too many characters and plotlines in and the net result is our failure to engage with hardly any of them. Gwynnie’s gone in a flash, a subplot involving Marion Cotillard’s WHO doctor and a kidnapping feels like an afterthought, and great character actors like Ehle, Bryan Cranston and John Hawkes are left to pick up whatever scraps of runtime are left. Soderbergh’s in too much of a rush for character; the timeline leaps forward weeks at a time, and any sense of jeopardy evaporates pretty quickly.
Contagion does manage to create a palpable sense of paranoia, and it does reflect how vulnerable our society can be when faced with panic. Despite this and some strong performances, however, Contagion never sticks. The focus is always on the virus, and not the people carrying it. The characters here are cyphers for Soderbergh paranoid pacing and plotting, and the film suffers for treating them as such. For a film about a virus, Contagion is disappointingly sterile.
P.S. Don’t think Elliot Gould’s character’s crack about blogging being ‘graffiti with punctuation’ wasn’t noticed!