“Contagion” is the kind of movie that will make you think twice before grabbing the door handle on the way out of the theater, then check your food storage once you get home. But by the next morning, you’ll be back to your usual routine.
The easy way to describe this film would be to say it is a contemporary thriller that follows the spread of a mysterious virus while the government and the medical community struggle to suppress it. In that sense, it’s no different from any other outbreak movie, like “The Andromeda Strain” or, well, “Outbreak.”
Many moviegoers will be reminded of Stephen King’s book and TV miniseries “The Stand.” Both stories feature popular ’80s ballads during tender moments, after all.
Visually, “Contagion” is true to director Stephen Soderbergh’s other films, like “Ocean’s Eleven” or “Traffic.” His use of creative camera angles and moody imagery add a striking tension to the film, establishing a bleak, foreboding tone while the story itself moves at a relaxed pace. Soderbergh strives for realism, and largely succeeds.
There are plot holes and loose ends, but unlike many disaster movies that jump headfirst into raids on local groceries and lawless chaos, “Contagion” shows us the gradual breakdown of order in the way such a catastrophe would likely play out on a world stage. When windows finally start breaking, it feels surprising and inevitable at the same time.
But even if the plot is familiar, what makes the film truly unique is the context in which it tells that story. “Contagion” tells the story of a virus in a viral world. Bloggers and social media play key roles as they mirror the spread of the lethal disease. One blogger, played by Jude Law, ascends near the status of a religious icon as his message fights more traditional authorities for the attention and trust of the masses. (In one of the film’s few lighthearted moments, Elliot Gould dismisses blogging as “graffiti with punctuation.”)
While the film traces through a web of different story lines (and a who’s who of accomplished Hollywood actors including Laurence Fishburne and Marion Cotillard), its central human focus is the plight of Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), who is married to the woman we assume is Patient Zero (Gwyneth Paltrow).
His struggle to maintain order and familiarity for what’s left of his family is the closest the viewer comes to feeling any genuine empathy, as Soderbergh’s effective tone also keeps the audience at arm’s length from his characters. Often we feel bad for the people in “Contagion,” but we never feel for them.
Unfortunately, in spite of a tense atmosphere and some high-dollar acting, from a distance the viewer realizes that he or she isn’t really all that concerned with the outcome of the story. The fate of the world never truly feels like it is hanging in the balance, no matter what the bright blinking world maps or the post-riot-trash-in-the-streets would tell us.
The linear plot never really varies enough to keep us guessing, and for that reason, “Contagion” is an entertaining and interesting film, but not really a great one. With the potential of our modern media parallels so close by, it almost feels like a missed opportunity.
“Contagion” is an unnerving movie, but it isn’t scary. It is tense, but it isn’t exciting. It is a unique movie, but you’ve seen it before.
“Contagion” is rated PG-13 for elements of gore, violence and profanity, including one obligatory use of the F-word. While the film is not extremely violent, its subject matter leads to enough gore and frightening moments that kids under 10 should probably stay away.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who also teaches English composition at Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.