Coughs and sneezes spread diseases. As do handshakes, credit cards and peanuts in Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s chilling, convincing thriller about a world-ravaging pandemic. Catching viewers as much as characters on the hop, it’s a ‘Whatdunnit?’ that opens, ominously, with ‘Day 2’ and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Beth looking very ill. No spoilers, but there’s no point sending her a get well soon card.
Soon enough, disease-chasing doctor Kate Winslet is developing a nasty tickle. If Oscar-winning actresses aren’t safe, what hope for the rest of us? Contagion alarms, but it’s not alarmist. Soderbergh’s characteristic cool head serves him well as the plot swerves from hotspot to hotspot (Minneapolis, Hong Kong, Paris, London…), mapping out a full-blown crisis in a manner that’s informed, restrained and responsible.
Despite all the stars – this is the Valentine’s Day of virus movies (and just as liable to spin your stomach) – there’s no disaster flick glamour. Heroism here is a matter of midnight donkeywork (scientist Jennifer Ehle, researching remedies) or quiet vigilance (everyman Matt Damon, a widower looking out for his daughter while the suburbs go to pot in scenes that’ll especially rattle UK audiences, post riots).
The closest thing to a showboat is Jude Law, rocking a fake snaggletooth and funny walk as a guerrilla blogger who spreads panic in his pursuit of truth. While a little of Law’s shit-stirring goes a long way, others aren’t so lucky. Marion Cotillard for example, whose WHO worker gets a beginning, an end but little middle to her promising arc. Soderbergh’s maintenance of mundane realism prompts it-could-be-you shivers; on the other hand, you never really give much of a monkey’s about anyone.
The litany of consequences – misinformation, self-interest, social breakdown, death – is never less than bleakly compelling. But unlike Soderbergh’s Traffic – Contagion’s war-on-drugs counterpart – there’s a sense of depth sacrificed for breadth. Too many subplots, too much scope, too tight an edit. And given that Contagion won’t be many punters’ idea of a fun night at the pictures, you have to wonder whether it would have satisfied more expanded and unpacked over several nights as a miniseries. At least watching at home you’d be less paranoid about who else has been touching the doorknobs…
A level-headed take on a topic that’s often an excuse for madness and melodrama. You’ll be engrossed and grossed-out, but may suspect there’s a ton of footage under quarantine until the Blu-ray.