In this image released by Warner Bros. Pictures, Matt Damon is shown in a scene from the film "Contagion." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Claudette Barius)
3 out of 3 stars
"Contagion" is a movie carrying an important message from one of the world's most talented directors with a cast that includes no less than four Oscar-winners. Not quite the action disaster advertised in the trailers, it's also not the mystery/thriller some of us might have wished for. It's trying to be a little bit of everything and usually when that happens, nobody gets what they want. It might just be the highest-profile movie of 2011 without a target demographic.
Having little left to prove to anyone (and threatening to retire as a result) Atlanta native Steven Soderbergh approaches "Contagion" in much the same manner as "Traffic." With a dispassionate attitude, he and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns offset rapid-fire dialogue with long stretches of highly-visual, non-verbal storytelling and distill a great deal of information into a relatively scant 105 minutes. There are no lead performers; all of the actors are there to support the story -- one that, if it doesn't bum you out, will leave you paranoid and looking at everything in your life with a jaundiced eye.
Instead of using the drugs in "Traffic" as the villain, "Contagion" features a fictional virus that feels all too real. Imagine Mad Cow, H1M1, AIDS and the Asian Bird Flu combined on steroids with the delivery speed of a dirty bomb and you'll get an idea of the severity and potency.
The disease's "patient zero" is a businesswoman played by Gwyneth Paltrow who contracts the virus in Hong Kong then drops it off in Chicago before arriving home in Minneapolis the next day. Every day thereafter the number of people who get infected doubles and in less than a month, close to 10 percent of the world's population is sick and/or dead. The incubation-to-mortality timeline for the virus is less than 48 hours.
In a gutsy but commercially unwise storytelling move, the filmmakers chose to include next to no character development or back story and instead opted for a more technical approach. Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould and Marion Cotillard all appear as scientists/doctors working for the CDC and the World Health Organization who all react the way any dedicated medical professional would. They remain calm and focused, stick to the facts, avoid hyperbole, speak clinically, think globally and (mostly) remain emotionally detached.
What the doctors may lack in emotion or warm-n-fuzzy audience appeal is made up for by Matt Damon as a widower naturally immune to the disease and Jude Law as a Julian Assange-inspired conspiracy theory-spreading blogger with an ulterior motive. Both men's characters face a completely different set of circumstances and while both bend neither breaks.
While there is a point A to point B storyline with a beginning, middle and an end (and a terrifically conceived closing preamble), "Contagion" isn't meant to entertain but rather to provoke and educate. We live in an unforgiving world where something like this virus could arrive instantly and without notice, be it by accident, chance or as a form of terror. As Winslet's character astutely points out at one point, it is possible to come out on the other end of an event like this unscathed, but when something this deadly, mysterious and fast-spreading shows up, people eschew logic and revert back to the species' hunter-gatherer/caveman mentality.
Soderbergh's movie shows humans at their best and worst, often in the same person at the same time and that's the truly scary part. When pressed and pressured, most people will panic and like any effective virus, panic and its ugly stepsister fear spreads fast; reason doesn't stand a chance. We can choose to work for the individual or the group but, more often than not, the group ends up with the short end of the stick. (Warner Bros.)