It would have been very easy for a movie like “Contagion” to push the panic button and hold it down, but it does something much smarter – it simply allows the events to unfold with little personal commentary to sully the narrative. Even better, the movie dares to take the seldom-traveled path between pre-epidemic containment (“Outbreak”) and post-apocalyptic wasteland (pick any zombie movie other than “Shaun of the Dead”). Like other movies with multiple narratives, some threads go dark for long periods of time while others disappear unexpectedly, and the fact that the movie doesn’t hit the panic button means that the third act will seem anticlimactic by comparison. Still, it’s tough to fault a movie, especially one about a deadly virus, for being too grounded.
The story begins on the second day of the outbreak, as a handful of people around the world begin experiencing deadly seizures that baffle the local medical authorities. As the cases begin pouring in, World Health Organization epidemiologist Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) travels to Hong Kong after concluding that it is the source of the virus’ origin, while Center for Disease Control spokesman Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) tries to come up with a cure for the virus while his window in which to deliver results before societal meltdown becomes increasingly smaller. To make matters worse, both the CDC and WHO have to deal with people who view the epidemic as an opportunity, and think nothing of hindering the greater good for personal gain.
If something this horrific were to actually happen, it would almost certainly go down like it does here. People would find out things about their newly deceased loved ones that they’d rather not know. The careers of good people would be needlessly ruined. The ones trying the hardest to prevent the outbreak would likely be among the first wave of casualties. (Director Steven Soderbergh does not spare the whip when it comes to offing his Oscar-caliber cast.) Eventually the public hits a breaking point, resources are stretched to the limit, all hell breaks loose, and even good people begin reexamining their morals. And yet, despite the chaos, and the cynicism of those who exploit the virus for profit, the ultimate message is a hopeful one. What a pleasant surprise.
Pity, then, that the story is woefully lacking emotional depth. Matt Damon loses two members of his family, and it is months before he sheds a tear. Most of the other characters stay well out of harm’s way, and the ones that do fall ill have the courtesy to be single and leave no spouses or children behind. This may help streamline an already busy narrative, but it also makes for one cold movie. The acting, though, is quite good, however Jude Law’s muckraking blogger Alan Krumwiede oozes too much sleaze for a freedom fighter. The one who winds up outshining all of the Oscar winners and nominees (of which there are eight, by the way) is Jennifer Ehle, who plays the tireless CDC researcher Ally Hextall. If her performance here is any indication, she is about to have a moment.
“Contagion” doesn’t rewrite the rules of virus movies, but it gets points for daring to suggest that the government consists of dedicated civil servants who are actually working in the best interests of the people. That may not be the sexiest angle – most movie governments go full-on tyrannical when the bad stuff goes down – but there’s nothing particularly sexy about the subject matter, either. It’s nice to see a movie deal with the whole sordid mess in as black and white a manner as possible.(3.5 / 5)