Contagion is the latest in a long tradition of Hollywood films about killer viruses decimating the planet’s population, and while it’s a slick and solid affair (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms) it fails to bring anything new to the table. Given the pedigree in front of and behind the camera, this is something of a disappointment: one might have hoped for more from director Steven Soderbergh and a cast that includes big-hitters like Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet and Matt Damon. But even if it does head down a well-trodden path, it does so resolutely within the real world, sketching a credible impression of a world teetering on the brink of chaos. There have been better movies about this particular apocalyptic scenario, but there have been worse ones too.
Starting with Beth (Paltrow) returning home from a business trip in the Far East, we witness the beginnings of a pandemic spreading across the world. After she and a few other seemingly random people around the world succumb to the disease, husband Mitch (Damon) is forced in to quarantine but it’s too late: the virus has succeeded in spreading and its victims don’t take long to die. Trying to contain the outbreak are a few doctors and scientists (among them Winslet and her boss Laurence Fishburne), while internet journalist Alan (Jude Law) suspects a government conspiracy to withhold a vaccine which he believes would cure the infected.
Beginning with the small, intimate tragedy of a family suddenly robbed of one of its members, Contagion’s focus slowly widens to include the various people who are sucked in to the unfolding nightmare: health officials, politicians, the army, the press and finally the public at large. Yet there’s very few histrionics on display here (bar the odd scene of looting), and Soderbergh resists the temptation to spike the gently downbeat narrative with excursions in to action like The Omega Man/I Am Legend (take your pick) or Outbreak. Instead the story stays firmly on the side of credibility: people die, law and order slowly begins to crumble, scientists patiently try to concoct a cure. After dozens of zombie movies that seemed to relish portraying the end of the world in gory detail, it’s a refreshing change of pace – even if it does feel a bit too familiar.
There are one or two blips in the otherwise smooth proceedings though. A sub-plot concerning a Chinese attempt to extort a vaccine seems unnecessary and in rather poor taste, as well as being largely sidelined until the end. But the real fly in the ointment is Law’s role as an anti-establishment blogger. He appears to have wandered in from a different movie altogether; with his bad teeth, lack of social skills and eagerness to mouth off to anyone and everyone, the character comes across as being written by someone who thinks all internet users must be anally-retentive nerds. What is this, 1997? One hesitates to blame Law for what is surely a fault with an otherwise pretty watertight script, but he doesn’t much help himself by wrestling badly with an Australian accent. Maybe he’s just trying to settle a score with all those computer dweebs who slag off his films?
Paltrow’s role is necessarily brief, but she returns in flashbacks dotted throughout the film and is typically ethereal. Damon is on less sure ground as an ordinary man who finds himself at the epicentre of events. Fishburne does his stoical thing, while Marion Cotillard gets to look pensive a good deal (as indeed do lots of people). Better are two veterans of 1990s Jane Austen adaptations: a nicely subdued Winslet as the lead investigating health officer, and Jennifer Ehle as a lab scientist.
Soderbergh’s trademark stylish visuals are present and correct, re-enforcing the temperate nature of the story with a subdued colour scheme that seems purposely drained of colour and life, echoing the wintry setting of the American-set portions of the plot. If only the story had had as much attention paid to it: as it meanders towards its conclusion, the lack of purpose and tension all too palpable, you’re left wondering why such a big-budget serious drama, which went to so many pains to create a believable storyline, has so little to say about it. It’s good, but what was the point again?