Not to advocate violence, but anybody who cannot control their coughing while publicly watching Contagion, a movie about super sniffles that nearly destroy humanity, is either too sick to be around others or desperate for negative attention — that is to say, they’re either sick or “sick.” You know who I’m talking about, people.
With that off my chest, director Steven Soderbergh (Oceans 11, 12 and 13) begins his latest film with a single, audible cough as Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) sips beer at an airport bar and realizes that she feels like death, literally. What she doesn’t realize is that she’s “patient zero” in a soon-to-be-worldwide viral epidemic that will make the Spanish Flu look like the Spanish Slap and Tickle. In just a few movie minutes, she’s discharging Cujo-esque amounts of foam via her nose and flopping like a grounded trout.
But not before infecting her own son, who also succumbs to a gruesome death, not to mention a whole airport of other folks whose only crime is not having enclosed themselves in a plastic bubble filled with hand sanitizer before venturing out into this cruel world.
Beth is married to Mitch Emhoff, played by a chubbed-up Matt Damon. Mitch is the closest thing we get to a main character in Contagion, mostly because (A) he’s most likely the roundest character in the movie and (B) he’s done himself the favor of being immune to the ragin’ contagion.
The rest of Contagion’s narrative is as tangled as a plate of spaghetti, with all but a forkful of its subplots being related only via the film’s invisible main character: the virus itself. There’s Laurence Fishburne, who plays a CDC big shot; Jude Law plays a blogger popular with the conspiracy theory crowd; Kate Winslet plays an epidemiologist sent to the front lines to try to contain the early spread of the disease; Marion Cotillard plays Dr. Leonora Orantes, who, uh, gets kidnapped; and Demetri Martin plays a guy with a really bad haircut. Or maybe he’s a doctor — there are about a million of them in the film. Even Dr. Sanjay Gupta answered the all-physicians-on-deck call, playing himself.
So with all this star power, where does Contagion go wrong? Well, first off, it doesn’t, at least not completely. Its overstuffed cast means that, while loaded with high-dollar talent, the scenes are short and the plot is propulsive. This is great for the ADD crowd, but it doesn’t allow much time for the characters to really cast shadows.
Soderbergh and writer Scott Z Burns (who teamed with both Soderbergh and Damon for 2009’s The Informant!) invested heavily in realistically detailing the world’s response to a viral catastrophe rather than chronicling the outcome (like, say, 28 Days Later). This pre-apocalyptic approach is just what the doctor ordered, even if the movie occasionally — don’t take this the wrong way — feels like a viral version of 2012 (the Roland Emmerich earthquake movie with John Cusack).