I’ll give Steven Soderbergh this. He at least tries. Throughout his career, Soderbergh has tested the waters of various genres in both the indie and big studio vein. He’s done small, low-budget fare like SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE and big budget studio work like the OCEANS series. Soderbergh is also one of the few filmmakers who is consistently loved by critics. No matter what he does, he can’t seem to be able to do any wrong in the critics’ eyes even for films that I consider overrated. Personally, I admire the fact that he’s not afraid to try different genres, but effort doesn’t equate to quality and I think Soderbergh has made a lot of misfires, especially of late (CHE, OCEAN’S THIRTEEN, THE GOOD GERMAN, SOLARIS, and FULL FRONTAL). CONTAGION never appealed to my taste mostly because I think the virus disaster film has been done to death over the past 10 or so years (28 DAYS LATER, CABIN FEVER, QUARANTINE, I AM LEGEND, and 1994’s OUTBREAK still remains fresh in my memory). Granted, CONTAGION poses the realistic question of how would the world deal with an outbreak of a serious virus? It doesn’t contain any of the horror or science fiction elements that we see in the films I mention above. Nonetheless, CONTAGION ended up being a procedural examination of what we would do in the face of a viral outbreak. It lacks suspense and heart and, as a result, it’s an unmemorable and emotionless film.

CONTAGION is structured like Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning TRAFFIC in that we have an ensemble cast of characters. Like TRAFFIC, each character’s story represents one aspect of the viral outbreak scenario. The film begins with Gwyneth Paltrow, who is one of the first people to spread the virus globally by contracting it while she’s on business in Hong Kong. As she travels back from Hong Kong back to her home in Minneapolis, she causes the virus to spread through human direct and indirect physical contact. When she gets home, she spreads it to her child. Her husband is played by Matt Damon and suddenly he’s faced with a dead wife and a dead son. However, he’s found to be immune to the virus. In the meantime, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) is alerted to this new deadly virus. Laurence Fishburne plays the head of the CDC and he begins to investigate the virus’ origin and how to best contain it. He sends out Kate Winslet, a CDC doctor, to go and find out how to contain the virus. At the same time, Marion Cotillard plays another doctor who works for the WHO (World Health Organization) and she travels to Hong Kong to find the original carrier of the virus. During all of this, we have Jude Law, a conspiracy blogger who is intent on revealing the government’s shadowy tactics in hiding the virus’ serum from the general population.

The film has a nice opening that’s set against cool electronic music where we see the virus travel from person to person, city to city, and begin a global epidemic. It’s a great beginning that unfortunately is unable to maintain its momentum. The remainder of the film plays like a clinical examination of all the likely possibilities to occur in the event of a global epidemic. I don’t have a problem with that and films of this style have been done much more successfully in the past (SYRIANA for instance). However, with CONTAGION, Soderbergh has forsaken the building of momentum, suspense, and drama for a textbook exploration of the subject matter. We simply move from one scene to another until we reach the end and a cure for the virus has been disseminated among the population. The end.

I think one reason why momentum, suspense, and drama is lacking in CONTAGION is partly because we have so many stories being juggled around that there doesn’t ever seem to be an opportunity for the filmmakers to stop, take a breath, and develop these basic elements of a successful film. Relatedly, none of the stories are explored fully enough for the audience to invest in any of the characters or to their stories. TRAFFIC had the same problem, but the characters in that film were fascinating enough to at least get the audience interested in what would happen next. But if you have had the fortunate chance to see TRAFFIK, the original miniseries that the film was based on, you would know that there is so much more to that story than what Soderbergh was able to fit into a couple of hours. CONTAGION doesn’t even have interesting enough characters to make me want to know what would happen to them. We are given enough of each character’s plot to move the story forward, but not enough to make me connect with any of them. Matt Damon’s story in particular just seemed to go nowhere for me. His character doesn’t really undergo any arc like all major characters should do in a movie. After his wife and stepson die, Damon is merely seen reacting to all the events going on around him as he tries to protect his daughter.

Another reason why I didn’t care about the characters was their lack of likeability. None of these characters, with the exception of Marion Cotillard, are people I would want to know personally. And even with Cotillard, she’s barely in the film in relation to the others so you never get a chance to really get to know her and establish a connection. CONTAGION, as a whole, lacks emotion and perhaps Soderbergh intended this given that his movie is about a virus that decimates a very large number of people. You don’t see very much the human side of the virus’ destructive path. There is one scene where we briefly see a small Chinese village that has been severely affected by the virus, but again, no time is spent to sufficiently explore these effects.

Like all Soderbergh films, all the actors do a fine job in the acting department. Especially noteworthy is Jude Law, who is excellent as the conspiracy blogger. The character is sort of an asshole and much of what he does is for the purpose of receiving recognition and fame. At the same time, however, the information he reveals to the public is useful and he serves as the voice of the masses during the epidemic. I haven’t seen Law put in a great performance in quite a long time and it’s nice to finally see him come back with a meaty role (is it also coincidental that he, Paltrow, and Damon, the stars of THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, all return together in this film?). A fine performance is also given by Laurence Fishburne as the CDC director. He’s one of the few characters with any semblance of a sense of humor so his scenes provided a nice counterbalance to the film’s generally grim atmosphere.

One thing I will give CONTAGION is that it is an exceptionally smart movie. The story doesn’t dumb itself down for the audience just because its dealing with science and medicine. I felt like I was actually learning something by listening to the characters explain how a virus travels, mutates, etc. Like I said before, CONTAGION feels like a clinical exploration of a viral epidemic and this is mainly because of Soderbergh’s textbook approach to the subject matter.

I was clearly not as enamored over CONTAGION as the critics were. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns leave a lot unexplored and hanging in an effort to tell multiple stories. TRAFFIC had its own issues, but these were not among them. This is an ambitious and well-meaning film that falters in trying to do too much. Consequently, we’re left with something that resembles a documentary rather than a thrilling and suspenseful movie.

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