Contagion means business. Gwyneth Paltrow and her son are dead within the first ten minutes–with the corpse of the Oscar winner graphically scalped to find the cause–and at least one other marquee name is dumped into an open grave. Making his end of the world movie (a genre, or a vibe, that many filmmakers feel drawn to), Steven Soderbergh directs the track of a lethal virus pitilessly, as it originates in Hong Kong and Macau, radiates westwards, and consumes between 70-80 million lives. And all in 106 minutes, scored to funereal, end-of-days electronica by Cliff Martinez.
Needless to say we’re not in Irwin Allen territory. For one thing the cast of snifflers and seizure bait (Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, and Marion Cotillard, once again extending her Hollywood work visa as few foreign-language actors do) is hipper than Red Buttons and Carol Lynley. For another the “master of disaster” would have insisted that the plague unleash fires, or zombies, or hordes of killer bees–something exciting, something spectacular. But Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns aren’t out to entertain us, especially not with a movie timed to open on another jittery, “chatter”-filled 9/11 weekend. Filmed with a drab palette, in the “paranoid style” favored for All the President’s Men, Contagion is essentially a speculative documentary, which ends with a title card saying–no, insisting–that this will happen.
That I believe. A high school near us was Brooklyn Ground Zero during the H1NI outbreak, and you can be damn sure I didn’t take my daughter anywhere near there two years ago. If it had gotten any worse, with mounting casualties and panicky breakdowns as in the movie, I would have redefined the term “stay-at-home” dad, as Damon does in the movie, and locked down our place but good. (I’ve rehearsed the inevitable at-the-door speech: “Sorry, hon, but you chose to go to work during a pandemic, now we must find our own paths for the good of our family.” With hell to pay when it subsides and my wife returns, I know.) Contagion is a starry PSA, a filmed manual on what not to do, mostly, when the microbes flood into your neighborhood. Keep the DVD with your flashlights and water bottles.
So long as the movie sticks to its doc-ish agenda, it’s effective, if understandably morose. Scenes of physical and societal collapse are handled clinically, and economically. The movie maintains a Spock-like detachment from the horror; prolonged grief is not an option, and forget about the niceties of funerals, this is the real thing, audiences, so man and woman and child up. That the movie keeps its distance doesn’t mean it lacks a morality, however, and here Allen would approve, as it’s your stern grandma’s. Paltrow, Patient Zero, is revealed as an adulteress, whose layover with her lover helps spread the disease, so she and her son (from a relationship prior to her marriage to Damon) must die as Damon and his daughter (Paltrow’s stepchild) soldier on in the house. Meanwhile, Law’s blogger, whose morals are as corroded as his teeth, rakes in millions peddling a fake cure, and outs the movie’s voice of conscience, a CDC official played by Laurence Fishburne, on national TV for a moment-of-weakness offense. The movie’s tsk-tsk view of blogging and homeopathic medicine is prim, to say the least. (And Soderbergh, a director at his best communicating via inference and gesture, gracelessly tacks a big reveal onto the end, one that makes Paltrow, in the movie for maybe five minutes including flashbacks, an unwitting conspirator in the outbreak atop her other failings. All for springing her Goop website on us?)
Like I said, though, brisk, always welcome with this type of picture. The actors are more proficient than inspired, save for the less well-known Jennifer Ehle, who brings a welcome sparkle to her role as a researcher, and deserves at least a Pauling Prize for making reams of scientific dialogue and exposition comprehensible. Someday Contagion may (will) help us get out of a viral jam. As the movie of the moment, however, it’s not much more than a low-grade fever that breaks once you’ve left the theater.