I was so eager to see Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion that I even caught the lurgy to make sure my viewing experience was all the more authentic. While I can hope that my fellow cinema-goers didn’t leave the theatre today with my cold as a souvenir (I did try not to touch my face three times every minute as the film instructed), the film itself didn’t leave much of a lasting impression, possibly because it couldn’t make up its mind what it was about, other than a nasty bug.
The premise is simple. Beth Emhoff (Gwynneth Paltrow) returns from Hong Kong to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and child in the US with an extremely contagious, incredible fast and virulent infectious disease. Something like the bird flu but much much worse. As it spreads, speculation and conspiracies fester that it is a biological weapon unleashed on the world by a terrorist. Dr Cheever (Laurence Fishburn) and his associate Dr Erin Meers (Kate Winslett) aim to control the spread of the disease while Dr Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) works for a cure and Dr Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) searches for the source in the east. This is a race against time and, as the numbers of dead and dying multiply, lawlessness and fear spread just as fast, exacerbated by blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law).
Contagion has one of those casts that makes you want to nudge your neighbour every time you spot another famous face. Not all of them last. Indeed, this is one of those rare films where being famous is not a guarantee of making the second act. While reminding me of other disease ensemble movies, especially those from the 1980s and early 1990s when AIDs was as frightening as the Cold War, such as And the Band Played On and Longterm Companion, it also runs up against comparisons with that other disease blockbuster Outbreak with Dustin Hoffman. Contagion is not like any of these films because it doesn’t know what it is.
There are some interesting ideas and some well put together pieces, complemented by some excellent music, particularly the scenes in which those with the disease are seen literally leaving their mark. When the characters of Kate Winslett and Jennifer Ehle work to deal with the physical logistics of the epidemic and find a cure, there are fascinating moments but they are all too brief and lost among some of the other stories that mud the waters, notably a very accented Jude Law’s scenes and the preposterous story meted out to the excellent Marion Cotillard. The tale of Matt Damon and his daughter is likewise superficial and not plausible. The idea of the lottery for the vaccine is also interesting but at one point you realise that the most dangerous threat to mankind as presented here is that the rubbish isn’t being collected off the streets.
There was one character in particular that I did like and I would have liked to have seen more of them but, unfortunately, the disease was too virulent for the good of the film. Laurence Fishburn, on the other hand, kept making me think that I was watching some kind of extended CSI episode.
Having said all that, I sat gripped, albeit unmoved, through the entire movie – fortunately, some of the less believable stories were too brief to agitate the hackles – but I was left with the feeling that Contagion could have been so much better – a 28 Days Later without the zombies.