Contagion is, by definition, a post-9/11 movie, and the director doesn’t shy away from illustrating an attack far deadlier and somehow more banal than a terrorist attack.
Not long after the release of Contagion (2011), Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from filmmaking, claiming he had decided to focus on painting as his primary form of expression. His plan was to finally complete his long-gestating Liberace biopic and leave movies behind. As fate would have it, this scenario never quite played out, thought it never felt like he was truly serious in the first place. In just slightly over two years, Soderbergh would release five films—Contagion, Haywire (2012), Magic Mike (2012), Side Effects (2013) and Behind the Candelabra (2013)—that were wholly indicative of an artist both at the peak of his abilities and utterly entrenched in the forms, functions and feelings of his medium. With these films, Soderbergh cemented himself as a master of what film academic David Bordwell describes as the “intelligent midrange picture,” the sort of mainstream entertainments whose generic surfaces belie the depths of their thinking. Contagion, a thriller about a rapidly spreading disease that’s wiping out the world’s population, is perhaps the most cerebral of the bunch. The film is a star-studded disaster movie that takes a familiar genre bred in the ‘70s and places it in a decidedly 21st century milieu, effectively illustrating to durability of popular film form while simultaneously treating it as a platform for new cinematic approaches.
Despite its outsized premise and global outlook, Contagion remains a compact and tightly managed film, a pronounced paradox that supplies the film with its sole sense of wonder. Otherwise, things run serious and more serious. Soderbergh seeks to confront reality on all fronts, but the director’s sure-handedness enlivens and enlightens the situation. The movie is wearing, but also exhilarating, because it takes a controlled approach to an uncontrollable scenario while managing to honor the audience’s intelligence. It’s an argument against melodramatic thinking, and in the process of stripping a decidedly melodramatic genre of any unnecessary emotion, it also offers salient commentary on technological connectivity and the nature of American life in an increasingly globalized society.
Like Soderbergh’s best work, Contagion moves with incredible speed and focus, but the amount of literal ground covered here renders the film particularly impressive. The story begins with Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), who’s on a business trip in Hong Kong, where she enjoys a fancy dinner with colleagues. On her way home, she has a layover in Chicago and has sex with an ex-boyfriend before returning to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), in Minnesota. She gets sick and dies soon after, and doctors are stumped. The end of the film will reveal the source of the virus, but it’s a secondary notion compared to the apocalyptically rapid fashion in which it envelops the planet. The story jumps between various countries and multiple characters, and using contemporary film grammar, Soderbergh theoretically connects each of them in a way that defies the time and space that literally separates them. Despite the distance, they’re united by disease and, by extension, the director’s camera.
The virus, and the disease it creates, is the ultimate embodiment of paranoia. The modes of connection that exist in our everyday lives—the technology-enabled personal and professional interactions that sustain economic and social behavior—are revealed to be the very conduit of the world’s destruction. The things that unite us prove to be our downfall, revealing the scariest aspect and perhaps the most logical endpoint of a technologically connected world: its downfall will come from within. In the film’s best and sickest joke, a dead Paltrow (or rather, a prosthetic dummy that’s bears a terrifyingly uncanny resemblance to Gwyneth Paltrow) lies dead on a surgical table, a faceless doctor picking at her exposed brain, looking for the cause of a deadly virus that’s sweeping the nation but finding few clues.
Of course, Contagion isn’t without its real-life inspirations. Without being obvious, the film evokes the sense of bafflement and helplessness that accompanied the spread of everything from AIDS and Ebola to swine flu. Further demonstrating his resistance of conventional genre comforts, Soderbergh abstains from trumped up horror, focusing instead on the real-world processes that give the film a professional legitimacy and, somehow, make the story even scarier. The world doesn’t go down without a fight. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leads the charge against the disaster. Cheever and his team—specialist Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), doctor Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle)—exude confidence and resolve despite the overwhelming sense of despair that surrounds them. Their abilities and obvious intelligence are thwarted throughout the story, and their commitment to the cause, initially inspiring, morphs into a kind of ritualized set of individual behaviors that are useless against the systemic breakdown that is widespread disease. In what seems like a bit auto-critique, Soderbergh abandons the infatuation with professionalism that nearly defines films like Haywire and the Ocean’s series.
Contagion is, by definition, a post-9/11 movie, and the director doesn’t shy away from illustrating an attack far deadlier and somehow more banal than a major terrorist attack. The film posits that our seemingly advanced civilization could be put on the brink of collapse by the very things that helped advance it. In situations like these, people tend to pray, but one of the most notable things absent from Contagion, and Soderbergh’s work in general, is spirituality. The film’s most passionate beliefs are found in scientific research abetted by technology and the federal government, which accomplishes two things: it paints the director as a card-carrying lefty (not that he ever suggested otherwise, for what its worth), and it suggests that if humanity can be undone by the systems it creates, it can be saved by them, as well. With immaculately sterile technique, Soderbergh constructs a cyclical and formally rigorous portrayal of 21st century that, somewhat incongruously and nearly miraculously, operates in decidedly humanist terms.