Contagion

Contagion

2011, PG-13, 106 min. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, John Hawkes, Elliott Gould, Demetri Martin.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 9, 2011

Thanks, Steven Soderbergh. As if I didn't have enough to worry about as is, now I'm freaked out about the inevitability of a mystery virus that doesn't reanimate the dead. How are we supposed to save ourselves if we can't shoot anyone in the head? What good is my Bear Grylls heavy-duty, high-carbon-steel parang in the face of a sneeze, a sniffle, a touch, a kiss? They're dead, not undead, and that's all messed up.

Riffing on one of society's most ancient existential bugaboos – plague! – with a cool, strictly by-the-book tone that's near-documentarylike in feel, Soderbergh outlines the Asian-borne emergence of a 72-hour bug that sports a mortality rate of 1 in 4. It arrives in America attached to Gwyneth Paltrow (nice work if you can get it), who returns home from a business trip to Hong Kong, runs a fever, and dies two days later, as does her 8-year-old son. Her distraught husband (Damon, solid and believable as the story's human center) is quarantined but alive, and as the scale and minute-by-minute migration of the virus becomes obvious, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention head (Laurence Fishburne), World Health Organization representative (Marion Cotillard), and Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould) work, uh, feverishly to crack the viral code. Social chaos, including looting, burning, and Internet-fed hysteria ensue.

Helping fan the flames is a conspiracy-minded blogger (Jude Law) with a readership of "12 million unique page hits a day" and a conviction that the real cure is – wait for it! – forsythia. Homeland Security appreciates neither his bloggy conviction nor his anti-authoritarian persona, and as the societal breakdown ramps up, things do not bode well for the First Amendment.

I haven't mentioned any character names, frankly, because they're irrelevant. These are strictly archetypes, although why Soderbergh, one of the most intriguing and original filmmakers cinema has yet produced, chose to make a virus the central character is peculiar casting. To be sure, Damon, Cotillard, Fishburne and the rest all turn in adequate performances, but they're so "real" as to lack any whiff of unpredictability, or for that matter, drama. Only John Hawkes, in a cameo as a CDC janitor, makes a lasting impression on the viewer. Well, that and the need for all of us to wash our hands with far greater frequency.

Contagion is certainly the most realistic portrayal of a global pandemic I've seen, but that doesn't make it the most entertaining, or even all that intellectually interesting. George A. Romero's depiction of a similar, albeit fantastical, situations in his zombie films (particularly in Night of the Living Dead and the 1978 Dawn of the Dead) strike me as far more accurate, emotionally invested, and altogether important meditations on the human condition when faced with its rapidly approaching end. Soderbergh's vision, true to life though it may be, makes for an oddly uninvolving apocalypse. A dead Gwyneth Paltrow is a dead Gwyneth Paltrow, but a dead, flesh-eating Gwyneth Paltrow, now that'll keep you up at night, lights on, heart pounding.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Contagion
How Close to You Want to Be to 'Contagion'?
How Close to You Want to Be to 'Contagion'?
AMC Barton Creek debuts its IMAX screen

Kimberley Jones, Sept. 8, 2011

More Steven Soderbergh
Soderbergh and IBM's Sense of Scale
Soderbergh and IBM's Sense of Scale
Two small-scale projects put film and fiction in perspective

Monica Riese, May 2, 2013

From the Vaults: Underneath With Soderbergh
From the Vaults: Underneath With Soderbergh
When Steven Soderbergh Came to SXSW ’95 ...

Marjorie Baumgarten, Feb. 8, 2013

More Steven Soderbergh Films
Unsane
Steven Soderbergh's big-budget iPhone thrill ride.

Steve Davis, March 23, 2018

Logan Lucky
A different kind of heist film from the Ocean's 11 director

Kimberley Jones, Aug. 18, 2017

More by Marc Savlov
Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki
Behind the scenes as the Studio Ghibli mastermind returns to film

Dec. 14, 2018

Mirai
Delightful anime explores growing up from a kid's viewpoint

Nov. 30, 2018

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Contagion, Steven Soderbergh, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, John Hawkes, Elliott Gould, Demetri Martin

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle