Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns home from a business trip to China with a slight cough. Within a few short hours, she is dead from an unknown disease. The disease spreads quickly and mutates as it goes, so Doctors Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne) and Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) go into containment mode. There is no known cure; they have to stop the disease from spreading while they search for one. Meanwhile, Beth’s widower Mitch (Matt Damon) is declared immune and goes to great lengths to protect his daughter, internet prophet Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is arrested for spreading what he believes to be the truth, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is held hostage against the promise of a cure and millions of people around the world die.
Contagion has a first class cast in Winslet, Damon, Paltrow, Cotillard, Law and Fishburne, but the film’s greatest strength is also it’s greatest weakness. Instead of using the story of Beth Emhoff and her family as context and implied truth for what is happening in the world at large, Soderberg went for the bigger story and lost out on subtleties along the way. There is no doubt that the film is rife with tension, but without one particular thread to hone in on, much of that resonance is lost. The plotlines start off healthy enough, but as the narrative progresses, much of the clarity established at the start of the film is lost. Cotillard disappears for an hour and is not missed, Jude Law’s Alan Krumwiede becomes a scapegoat for the CDC’s lack of knowledge and his thread becomes more about conspiracy theory than anything else. Most of the cast are terribly underused, although their performances, for what short time they have on screen, are nuanced and realistic.
As well as this, the audience is not given a central character to root for – Paltrow’s character dies within the first few minutes – thus emotional focus and audience empathy is lost. For a film about a virus decimating the world’s population, a lot of time is given to talk and arguing. Matt Damon’s character is the closest we get to having someone on the ground to relate to, but since he has been declared immune, he is not in enough danger for the audience to form a bond with. At times the film feels small, which is a serious problem for a story about a pandemic.
Contagion plays on the fact that we do not always know what is on the surfaces we are touching; the average person touches their face thousands of times a day. Instead of over the top CG effects to illustrate this point, Soderberg went for subtle; someone collapses on a bus or a close up of someone touching a handrail does as good a job as medical jargon that we pretend to understand.
In all, Contagion is a tense thriller, but tries to do too much in too little time. It is well shot and when the central characters are given even a little room to breathe they excel, but these moments are too far and too few between to carry the movie as a whole.