According to Doctor Erin Mears (Kate Winslet, “Revolutionary Road”), the average person touches his or her face about 3,000 times a day. This means human beings are crawling with germs and other sorts of wee beasties. Director Steven Soderbergh (“The Informant”) expands on this fact and amplifies it into a hypochondriac’s worst nightmare in “Contagion.”
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The enemy in “Contagion” is the invisible virus, lurking on a door handle, incubating inside the man next to you on the bus and waiting on the rim of a glass. The deadly virus starts with Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow, “Country Strong”) and branches out from there, baffling doctors around the world who can’t keep up with the disease’s mutations. Widespread panic, riots and chaos follow.
The movie follows different narrative strands and characters ranging from health officials to civilians all linked together by the virus. However, because there are so many storylines, no one is given the screen-time that would allow it to fully develop. There’s a lot of jumping around and the movie doesn’t feel complete — it’s more of an apocalyptic scenario than a movie.
However, the lack of cohesion in the plot doesn’t really matter. The movie’s main focus isn’t the technicalities of a virus or even those of a plotline. Rather, what is important is the paranoia that follows a large-scale epidemic and the way individuals react in tough situations. The movie’s characters are completely human, evidenced not only in dramatic seizure-induced death scenes, but also in their interactions. Beth cheats on her husband Mitch (Matt Damon, “The Adjustment Bureau”). Doctor Mears, despite her skills and training, isn’t immune to the grief and strife the virus leaves in its wake. Even the calm and capable Doctor Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne, “Predators”) puts his reputation on the line in a moment of emotional turmoil. The movie has no real heroes because every character is vulnerable to the virus and subject to the panic that follows.
This is not to say the best and worst parts of people don’t come through. In fact, one of the more interesting characters is one of the worst — Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law, “Repo Men”), a blogger with horrible teeth and a murky thirst for wealth and power. His story is not only a meditation on the power of the media in times of uncertainty, but it also gives the movie its only politically charged aspect.
If it weren’t for Krumwiede and his blog, the movie would have simply been a story about the government racing against time in order to protect the American people. Krumwiede brings in complications like the pharmaceutical companies and is the only character who examines the idea of profit, giving the movie a dirtier but more realistic edge.
Throughout the film, Soderbergh makes sure to leave room for discussion similar to his approach to “Traffic” and earlier films. He does not editorialize much and lets the issues present themselves straightforwardly. “Contagion” is a rational and scientific in its examination of the world and the troubles that haunt it, but manages to preserve its humanity and vulnerability.