Spoiler Level: Low
I’ll keep this short, because it’s hard to say much about a film that has nothing much on its mind. Contagion, the new medical-disaster movie opening today, boasts typically excellent work from its director (Steven Soderbergh) and its all-star cast (notably Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, and John Hawkes). Unfortunately, why anyone thought the script by Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) was worthy of all this Oscar-caliber talent completely eludes me. A good director and a great cast can fool you for a while—and there are brief moments when Contagion rises above its mediocre script—but all the talent in the world can’t rescue a film that ultimately has no heart, no insight, and no point.
In Soderbergh’s large and impressively diverse oeuvre, the film Contagion most resembles is Traffic, his Oscar-winning 2000 film that used several interwoven stories to explore all the different strata of the drug trade. Contagion has a similar structure, following the spread of a previously unknown virus, MEV-1, across the world. The film’s Patient Zero is a philandering business traveler named Beth (Paltrow), who picks up the virus in Hong Kong. From there a worldwide pandemic breaks out, which we follow through the eyes of several characters: Beth’s husband (Damon) and step-daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron); a conspiracy-theorizing blogger (Law); and several CDC and WHO medical professionals who are either combating the spread of the outbreak (Fishburne, Winslet, Cotillard) or working to cure it (Elliot Gould, Ehle).
For roughly the first half of this film, I was willingly along for the ride: the events of the pandemic are presented plausibly and with a minimum of the sort of artificial Hollywood drama that marred 1995’s preposterous and painfully contrived Outbreak. In fact, during its first half, the film Contagion most reminded me of was 1993’s And the Band Played On, HBO’s fine (if reductive) adaptation of Randy Shilts book about the early days of the AIDS crisis. For its first half, Contagion has that same expansive, docudrama feel, and there is something fascinating about how the medical community—and society as a whole—would react to such a crisis. Contagion sometimes feels like a more professional version of that kind of based-on-actual-events TV movie, attempting to shape large, complicated facts into an understandable narrative. If it were one of these films, I might admire it for its restraint, and for refusing to compromise itself by creating phony drama.
Except, of course, that Contagion is not based on a true story: it is made-up, and, as such, there’s no excuse for its creators not to have made up a better story than this. Absent a documentary purpose, a film like this needs to have characters in whom we can emotionally invest, or it needs to have something prophetic or cautionary to say about its disaster scenario; ideally, it would have both these things, but Contagion has neither.
If Contagion worked as a simple thriller—faithfully drawing on its disaster-movie roots—it would be more enjoyable, but most of the tension leaches out of the film in its second half. The crisis grows—and millions die—but the emotional or societal impact of this epidemic are never really presented in anything more than a shallow montage way: the film makes tens of millions of deaths seem staggeringly dull. Soderbergh and Burns don’t seem to have anything original or startling to say about what could happen, or what it would mean: their only purpose seems to be to say this could happen, which—absent more excitement than Contagion offers—is not enough.
What’s worse, the filmmakers have even less to say about human nature. The cast works hard to make their underwritten characters real, and a few of them pull it off: Winslet does well with some emotional (though ultimately pointless) scenes as a CDC investigator, and—in a smaller role as the cure-seeking scientist—Jennifer Ehle proves why she deserves to be a much bigger star than she is. But all of the personal storylines are thin, many are incomplete or abruptly dropped, and a few are tied up in silly bows at the end to give the film an unconvincing illusion of narrative integrity. (Cotillard’s story takes some absurdly melodramatic turns, and the feel-good, ennobling resolution of Fishburne’s story is particularly silly and unearned.)
I doubt it’s a coincidence that Contagion is opening the Friday before the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, but—aside from tapping into a general feeling of hysteria—the film does not function as a metaphor for that crisis, or for anything else, really. However well-made, well-directed, and well-acted it is, Contagion is a waste: an undercooked, unexciting, unengaging disaster movie with nothing original or meaningful to offer.