Steven Soderbergh's CONTAGION is efficient. From the first cough to the final shot, the film has a clarity of vision and a purpose that is unrivaled in most big-budget films. It doesn't meander, it turns corners, and director Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns have made a film that is extraordinarily direct and focused for the scale that it operates under. Further, CONTAGION happily plays for the smart crowd. It's not interested in simplifying what it has to say, but the film's language makes it easy to follow if you pay close attention, and it rewards audiences who do that. As I said, efficient.
CONTAGION follows a global pandemic from the first "index patient" through to the end, and it wastes very little time in doing so. There's no fat on this film at all, and even the characterization serves to forward the story. Without going heavily into spoilers, I'll say that CONTAGION isn't interested in THE STAND-like apocalyptic imagery (although the shots of empty streets and airports are chilling) but it is interested in how the world would change in such an event. It treats the pandemic as a virtual certainty - it's happened before, many times over in history, and CONTAGION seems to suggest that it will certainly happen again. CONTAGION wisely sticks close to the people, and through those various characters we see this new, changed world.
Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) has returned from Hong Kong, with a layover in Chicago, and she's not feeling well. Coughing and achy, she dismisses it as jet lag, makes her way home to her husband mitch (Matt Damon) and in a matter of a couple of days, she collapses on the kitchen floor. When she's taken to the hospital, in a matter of hours, she's dead. And by then it's too late - with a high communicability rate, it isn't long before the new virus goes beyond anything seen before, and Dr. Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne) sends his ace investigator Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to try and track the source of the disease. Meanwhile Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a blogger out of San Francisco and a conspiracy theorist, thinks he know how the disease began and that the CDC is hiding information about it from the general public. And Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) must try to understand what happened in Hong Kong that started the pandemic, but she quickly gets more than she bargained for in dealing with the locals. As civilization slowly breaks down, various people and government agencies try to hold it together and come up with a vaccine.
Like Soderbergh's TRAFFIC, the narrative weaves through these characters, and we follow their insights as well as their foibles. None of them is perfect - Dr. Cheever isn't above warning his family against all rules of protocol, even as he tries to be the calming figure in front of the approaching storm. Alan has no issues making a little money on the side although he knows that the information he's giving out could potentially be wrong. And Matt Damon's Mitch, very much the audience surrogate through the film, must deal with the devastation of his family, all the while nursing the wound that his wife most likely cheated on him in Chicago, and that her cheating may have been the match that started the brushfire. It's a low-key performance, not showy, and proves that Damon is one of the most interesting, and best, actors working today. He's going to win an Oscar someday; it seems inevitable, and yet perfromances like this remind us that he's also not interested in the grandstanding performance. He's after something else - truth.
I've never been a germophobe, but anyone who flinches after a sneeze will probably pull their hair out over this movie. The film lingers on certain shots - a bus pole, a tabletop, anyplace that a person has touched, and you can just imagine the creepy-crawlies just waiting there to pounce. Soderbergh plays those moments for what they are worth, but he's not interested in the significance of the illness so much as the significance of the barriers it represents. Where even a handshake or an embrace can kill, and we must deliberately distance ourselves from our fellow human beings, how do we retain our semblance of civilization? Are we doomed to be alone in a world that needs us to come together more than ever? That theme resonates throughout the entire film, and becomes the central thesis of CONTAGION.
It's hard to write a review without spoiling on this one, because it's what happens in the latter half of the film that's so interesting, and what makes CONTAGION one of Soderbergh's best films yet. Soderbergh and Burns aren't interested in all the familiar tropes - they have something to say, and there is a message throughout the film that people, no matter what happens, will always be people, and I found CONTAGION a very optimistic film in that regard. I think the film presumes that the natural tendency of a person when he sees his fellow human fall is to offer the helping hand back up, even though we can behave irrationally as well. There is hope in CONTAGION, and I found the message comforting, especially in this day and age, where it's very difficult to stay optimistic with the world.
CONTAGION suggests that through the worst of times, we can be at our best, and although people may die, and behave badly, we all have an inner need to help each other out. We've seen the disease film before, but what CONTAGION does is different in that it has utter faith in people. I've always found Steven Soderbergh to be a very pragmatic kind of filmmaker, but he doesn't over-sentimentalize or make grandiose these moments of humanity. It's as simple as a handshake, or a dance shared by a couple of teenagers, or a husband learning how to grieve over his lost wife. It's the little things that make us who we are, and even in a sweeping film like CONTAGION, Soderbergh reminds us that the little things matter. It's a very frightening film, if you want it to be. But I found CONTAGION exhilarating, and even joyous in its way. If a global pandemic is as inevitable as the film claims, the film's idea that the one constant is humankind's need to help each other out makes me feel better about us as a whole. I love it when movies do that.