Director Steven Soderbergh takes on a deadly viral outbreak in his latest film, Contagion, with the same episodic story structure that he employed when he took on the war on drugs in Traffic. What this means is that Contagion is a very well made and often fascinating film that feels longer than it really is and it forgets about most of its characters at fairly inopportune times. The two films could really play side by side as a double bill of Soderbergh procedurals. They have almost the exact same strengths and the exact same faults.
Starting with a man in Minnesota (Matt Damon) who watches his wife and son pass away from a deadly, unknown virus, Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns spread their story of the outbreak to different corners of the world. In Atlanta, one of the heads of the Centre for Disease Control (Laurence Fishburne) and a high ranking military official (Bryan Cranston) try to keep the public from panicking. In cities across the US, a virologist (Kate Winslet) assesses the situation on the ground, while a member of the World Health Organization (Marion Cotillard) travels to China to find the source of the outbreak. As the world around them devolves into chaos, a San Francisco blogger (Jude Law) preaches of a climate of misinformation and claims to hold the cure to the outbreak that kills one out of every four people affected by it.
As with most Soderbergh films, Contagion’s biggest strengths come from the performances. Fishburne gets his juiciest role in quite some time and Winslet surprisingly registers quite well in a relatively small, but pivotal role. Possibly the biggest winner of the cast, however, is Law who sports a hideous snaggletooth and an arrogant attitude that constantly makes the audience question just how much they trust him.
The technical achievements on the film are also very impressive all around, but that tends to go hand in hand with most of Soderbergh’s films regardless of size and scope. Each setting in the film has its own separate tone, music, and lighting scheme. Soderbergh juggles them all effortlessly from a directorial standpoint.
The biggest problem comes in the form of Burns’ script since he doesn’t seem to have the same ability to juggle numerous topics like Soderbergh does. Burns can create a few surprises (no actor in the film is safe regardless of name recognition), but he tends to forget about plot strands for long stretches of the film which becomes maddening as the film leads to the conclusion. Also, Burns’ script really dabbles in baseline fear mongering more than a sense of level-headedness, which forces Soderbergh to include somewhat laughable shots of the hundreds of different ways one can get sick several times throughout the film. Again, these are the same problems Traffic had. Substitute the search for bad drugs with the search for good drugs, and you essentially have exactly the same film