Be scared. Very scared. And please get your supply of hand sanitizers ready to go before you set out to watch Steven Soderbergh’s much anticipated movie Contagion. You will need it upon exiting the theater. Big time.
Based on what could be a very likely scenario anywhere in the world, Contagion has a simple premise. How quickly can a deadly virus spread and how many must die before a vaccine is found? You don’t really want to know…
With all of its stars dropping like flies, Soderbergh wastes no time in making his deadly point: a virus can spread like wildfire in this day and age. From Hong Kong to London, to Japan and Chicago, folks begin to quickly drop dead and it’s not a pretty sight. Patient zero Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) catches “something” during a business visit to Hong Kong and before the fourth day is over, Beth and her son are both dead in Minneapolis … along with a conga line of people that stretches all the way around the world. Her bereft husband Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon, a regular at a Soderbergh film) is the everyday man in the story who is lucky enough to be immune to the virus and who witnesses first hand the collapse of society as order and chaos overtake the world as we know it.
While Mitch is busy trying to protect his only surviving child, researchers and scientists everywhere struggle to find answers to what becomes a pandemic. Center for Disease Control and Prevention Deputy Director Cheever (a commanding Laurence Fishburne) works with a team that includes the maverick doctor Ally Hextall (a luminous Jennifer Ehle) who is willing to take any risk to find a vaccine, brave Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), who is sent to the field and exposes herself to the virus and the steely researcher Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould, another Soderbergh regular) who has enough experience to make a breakthrough.
A world away, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is busy trying to figure out the inception and transmission of the virus until local politics derail her progress. It would not be a modern movie if the role of a blogger was not prominently featured and the ultra talented Jude Law does the honors as the extreme blogger Alan Krumwiede. After being dismissed by some as just a blogger (“blogging is graffiti with punctuation!”), Krumwiede becomes intent on not only proving a conspiracy and conflicts of interest, but also suggests there is already a cure.
In this age of fast trains, supersonic planes and electric automobiles, in just a few weeks this nameless, indiscriminate, relentless and invisible virus has killed millions. Just to add a touch of reality to the already scary proceedings, Soderbergh and writing partner Scott Z. Burns, dutifully remind us of other more quaint viruses, including the Spanish Flu, which almost a century ago wiped out 50 million people, one fifth of the world’s population at the time and many more than the casualties from World War I. This kind of sobering statistic is what makes you sit straight on your seat, pay attention to the screen, wonder if you are watching a documentary while simultaneously reaching for the Purell.
The fact that Soderbergh and Burns devised their storyline on a fictional virus that is deemed “biologically possible” begs the question of not if but when will we have to witness a real pathogen running rampant. In the meantime, please wash your hands. Use hand sanitizer. Don’t touch your face And pray. A lot.
Soderbergh is a master storyteller who moves the narrative at a quick pace with the steady eye of his beloved alter ego and camera man Peter Andrews and Cliff Martinez’ cool music. Soderbergh is at his most scariest when he takes a number of seemingly innocent every day acts such as shaking hands, reaching for the door knob, coughing, taking the bus, kissing your kid goodbye, sneezing and hugging and turns them into possibly lethal actions. That is what I call Horror with Capital H.
The simplicity of the quietly devastating final sequences pointing to the origins of the virus are a beauty in storytelling and a cautionary tale for meat eaters everywhere…
The stellar cast is a who’s who of famous actors who have either been nominated for an Academy Award or have won one. So this is an ambitious project any way you dice it and am glad that if a humanity killing virus movie was going to be made, it was at the hands of Soderbergh. A deadly virus has rarely seemed so thrilling.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh; Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes; MPAA rating: PG-13 (for disturbing content and some language)