Review: Contagion (12A ) / Directed by: Steven Soderbergh / Screenplay by: Scott Z Burns / Starring: Marion Cottilard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston
Time for Hollywood to address once again one of our greatest current primal fears - the ever-present grumbling threat of a devastating global pandemic - in Steve Soderbergh’s latest terrific, pulsating ensemble thriller, a movie which is neither science-fiction nor horror but rather a bold and bald “this is how it would really be” almost documentary style drama presented without frills and fuss and, refreshingly, no huge explosive apocalyptic set pieces. For this, we can suspect, really is how it would really be, Mankind wiped out, or at best brought to its knees, by the implacable and unpredictable power of Nature herself.
When one of your starriest stars - Mrs Coldplay Gwyneth Paltrow herself - pegs it after five minutes (it’s literally a cough-and-spit appearance) and we’re treated to the sight of her skull being opened up during a Centre for Disease Control (CDC) autopsy shortly afterwards, we can safely assume that no-one’s likely to be safe for the next 110 or so minutes (and sure enough she’s not the only A-lister to bite the bullet) and this isn’t going to be your routine ‘brain at home’ Hollywood blockbuster. Soderbergh brings his grounded sense of realism to what in the past has been depicted as an eyebrow-raisingly silly scenario (think ‘Outbreak’ - ‘have you seen this monkey?’) as his globe-trotting camera takes us to Hong Kong, London, San Francisco and various points in between as we see early sniffling, sweating victims of this new virus touching things, staggering about busy city streets, carelessly and unthinkingly transmitting something deadly and invisible to everyone they meet. ’Contagion’ tells us that we really ought to keep our hands in our pockets as not only do coughs and sneezes spread diseases but also touching doorknobs, cocktail glasses, credit cards and even our faces. Eeek.
With Gwyneth out of the picture our everyman figure is her husband (Matt Damon, easily the most interesting actor working in Hollywood at the moment) who seems to have a natural immunity and who, whilst not the ‘star’ of the film as such, is threaded throughout the movie as he tries to protect his daughter from infection as society starts to crumble and the rule of law collapses. Elsewhere our attentions are focussed on the medical brains desperately trying to find the source of the disease as well as everybody who may have come into contact with a carrier - a task which becomes increasingly difficult as the virus spreads alarmingly and the body-bags start to pile up. Laurence Fishburne exudes a sort of charismatic calm as Dr Cheevers, the CDC chief who’ll stop at nothing to find a cure for the virus but who is equally capable of hiding the truth from the public (for undoubtedly all the best reasons). His frontline medical gal is Kate “I was in ‘Titanic’” Winslet who is terribly earnest in her rather faceless and underwritten - and ultimately thankless - role. Jude Law rocks up as a pesky “we demand to know the truth!” blogger with a dodgy Australian accent and seriously bad teeth and whilst he’s not exactly a bad guy he doesn’t half get on your nerves after a bit, especially in his video link TV debate with Dr Fishburne where you really wish someone would give him a slap and tell him to stop being so smug.
But ‘Contagion’ isn’t about its cast, it’s about the effective sense of mounting dread it develops as the virus spirals out of control, eventually mutating into something potentially far worse and the utter helplessness of all our scientific minds with all the resources at hand to fashion a vaccine which will halt the spread of the disease. Scenes of San Francisco streets piled high with rubbish, public panic at food distribution points, looters setting fire to stores and raiding houses are unsettling enough in themselves and for British audiences may even bring back uncomfortable memories of those three or four strange days in August this year. But just when ‘Contagion’ reaches what seems to be a point of no return and it really looks as if things aren’t going to turn out too well for us human types, the film loses its momentum and its bottle and throws in a lazy and convenient resolution which, whilst not totally undermining the rest of the film, does tend to deflate its impact a little as it seems to have been lifted form a box marked “with one bound they were cured” and there are a couple of signing-off scenes with Damon and Fishburne which may well set off your “too schmaltzy!” alarms.
A few narrative grumbles aside then, ‘Contagion’ is a tense and sometimes troubling movie which really does make you stop and think and appreciate just how easy it would be for Mankind to take a fall on the back of a mere quirk of Nature. Just to lighten the mood then (ahem), catch this if you can, it’ll bug you if you don’t, the time flu by when I was watching it, I... (Stop it now - Starburst Ed). Bah. Spoilsport.
Expected rating: 8 out of 10
‘Contagion’ is spreading across UK cinemas now (sorry).