‘CONTAGION’ REVIEW: Catch this virus

Jude Law in 'Contagion' — Photo courtesy of Claudette Barius / Warner Bros.

First one. Then two. Then four. Then sixteen.

No, I’m not counting the number of people infected in Contagion, the new viral-thriller from director Steven Soderbergh. I’m counting the number of celebrities in this massively entertaining ensemble piece. There’s Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, John Hawkes and the list continues on and on.

One might think a film like this could buckle under the weight of so much starpower. Has Soderbergh gone all Garry Marshall on us?

Luckily, and thankfully, Contagion withstands the celebrity status of its cast and proves to be one of the most suspenseful movies of the year. It’s a morbid thought, but it’s true: We, as an American audience, love potential disaster and end-of-the-world scenarios. From previous cinematic efforts like Outbreak and 28 Days Later to real-life situations like Hurricane Irene, there is something attractive about government shutdowns, evacuations, press conferences and maps with areas that grow increasingly red. Scary, but oddly invigorating.

Contagion begins with Paltrow’s character of Beth Emhoff getting off a plane from Hong Kong and coughing. So begins the virus that eventually wipes out millions of people throughout the world and proves nearly unstoppable, even with the best efforts of the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization.

It takes only a few days for Beth to endure a seizure in front of her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon). It only takes a couple more minutes for Beth to die. The virus, which the scientists believe originated from both a pig and a bat, moves rapidly and takes no prisoners.

It’s up to Fishburne’s Dr. Ellis Cheever, Winslet’s Dr. Erin Mears, Cotillard’s Dr. Leonora Orantes and Jennifer Ehle’s Dr. Ally Hextall to identify the virus, find out how it spread, isolate the infected and develop a vaccine. Though the movie is every bit a Hollywood blockbuster, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns ground Contagion in science and as much reality as they can.

This is not a silly infection movie where Ving Rhames turns up to tell us, “The virus has gone airborne.” Many of the scenes in Contagion are professionals looking through microscopes or asking questions of those people showing symptoms. Though their actions are by-the-book protocol, watching the horror unfold is never dull.

Using an engagingly suspenseful score by Cliff Martinez, Soderbergh is able to build the tension to many crescendos. He focuses on the personal, the professional and the official. No presidents give press conferences (thank God!), but the nations of the world take appropriate steps to reduce the threat level.

Just about everything works in the movie. The script, much like reality, shows no mercy when it comes to victims. Don’t believe that there are “lead characters” in Contagion. If you do, there’s a chance they will die quickly. No one is immune.

The direction of the movie is one of its strongest suits. Soderbergh lets many visuals hang in the air with a powerful eeriness. The first few scenes don’t really focus on Paltrow’s character coughing and sneezing. Instead, the camera lingers on doorknobs, sweaty palms, handshakes and mugs of coffee. Our eyes are drawn to the potential risks that populate every surface. It’s a hypnotic effect, and Soderbergh exploits it to the fullest extent.

The movie feels so truthful that I was uneasy sitting in the movie theater. What could be found on that bag of popcorn I was sharing? Did someone just cough? Who was the last person to sit in this chair?

Because the virus takes the spotlight, not too many of the characters receive full backgrounds. Fishburne has several nice moments as Dr. Cheever, a man caught between professional obligations and personal alliances. I also appreciated Jude Law as a guerrilla blogger trying to uncover the truth behind the science. The character is slightly exaggerated, but Law plays it well.

Winslet and Damon are probably the best of the ensemble, and that’s mostly because their characters seem the truest. They go about their lives, trying to find some type of hope or normalcy. The shock of the world’s events hangs heavy on their faces. There’s one scene when Winslet delivers some unfortunate news to her boss, and just watch how the actress lets fear enter her teary eyes.

It would be great to report that every storyline works out, but Cotillard’s entire sub-plot fizzles out and doesn’t add much to the mix.

Still, there’s no denying that Contagion is infectious entertainment. It takes our built-up fear of biological warfare, viral outbreaks and household germs and spins a tale that unfortunately feels more like fiction than science fiction. I hate to say it, but there are lessons to learned here.

Note: Much Purell was used in the writing of this review.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
  • Contagion

  • 2011

  • Directed by Steven Soderbergh

  • Written by Scott Z. Burns

  • Starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Bryan Cranston, Jude Law and John Hawkes

  • Running time: 105 minutes

  • Rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language

  • Rating: ★★★★

  • Click here to purchase Contagion on DVD.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

2 thoughts on “‘CONTAGION’ REVIEW: Catch this virus

  • September 12, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    Great story and a chilling movie. It shows how we have little control over biology. We can only hope to contain it… Thanks hollywood soapbox!

  • September 12, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    Thanks for the comment (cough, cough).


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