When he isn’t making Oceans Eleven films, auteur Steven Soderbergh is quietly taking over every genre on the Hollywood playlist. Seemingly putting out a new film every few months, the last few years have seen the director tackle revolution epic (the two-part Che), erotic drama (The Girlfriend Experience) and satirical comedy (The Informant!). The well-worn outbreak genre is the latest to gain his attention, and given his reputation it comes with a massive cast of characters and a globe-trotting storyline that traces the spread of an unknown and deadly virus.
After returning from a trip to Hong Kong, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow, Country Strong) collapses and dies from an unknown virus, and is followed shortly by her son. Husband and father Mitch (Matt Damon, The Adjustment Bureau) must deal with the loss in the wake of what rapidly becomes a global epidemic. Disease control workers, doctors and scientists from organisations around the world – including Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne, TV’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road), Professor Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould) and Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard, Midnight in Paris) – work together, and sometimes against each other, to discover the cure for the plague. Meanwhile, blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law, Sherlock Holmes) rallies his millions of followers to distrust the authorities and demand his version of “the truth”.
Soderbergh rapidly fills the frame with information, with city populations and figures constantly popping up on screen. For such an (unnecessarily?) enormous cast, weaving together strands as he did with Traffic, Soderbergh does an excellent job in quickly establishing why each component is important to the whole, and a few rapid dispatches of characters also reaffirm the threat that the virus poses. Contagion is first and foremost a thriller, and it follows in the grand tradition of the US television procedurals E.R. and CSI in cooly explaining complex viral behaviour patterns in terms even us non-scientists can understand. This approach is often cold and clinical, especially when Paltrow’s head is casually cracked open during an autopsy, but it leaves no doubt that it is still the virus that is the main villain in this tale.
Which is why it is frustrating that Soderbergh has once again overcast this film, much as he did with Oceans Thirteen or any of his other recent ensemble pieces. Simply because all of these actors will work with the filmmaker, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they all should – at least not all at once anyway. While Contagion is a slightly more intelligent thriller than most outbreak films, it doesn’t always steer clear of some of the pitfalls of the genre. The large cast is mostly dealt with effectively, but some characters (in particular Elliot Gould’s) disappear without any apparent reason, while others are given extraneous subplots. Cotillard’s character is at one point abducted by villagers demanding that they are first in line for the cure, seemingly added to create an additional sense of urgency, as if a virus that killed 25 million people wasn’t urgent enough.
Most compelling and simultaneously frustrating is Jude Law’s blogger, who comes the closest to giving the film an agenda. Indeed, Contagion manages to steer clear of politics for the most part, with exception of the tussles between the Department of Homeland Security, the World Health Organization and other vested interests. Law’s character is thinly drawn, and adopting what seems to be an Australian accent by way of cockney ragamuffin for some reason, but he elicits the most important points from the film. As the virus rapidly turns into not just a physical, but a socially degenerative disease, he illustrates how quickly panic, and more importantly misinformation, can spread. If this is Soderbergh’s point, Scott Z. Burns’ (The Informant!, The Bourne Ultimatum) script makes it a laboured one, albeit wrapped inside a frequently taut thriller.
Contagion is released on 20 October 2011 in Australia from Roadshow Films.