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Contagion

Dir: Steven Soderbergh

Rating: 2.9/5.0

Warner Bros.

105 Minutes

The only thing that Contagion shares with the 1995 film Outbreak is its central premise. While the Dustin Hoffman vehicle is a bombastic horror ride, director Steven Soderbergh’s take on a killer virus on the loose is a reserved procedural that favors cool logic over heart-pounding terror. If Outbreak is the actual detonation of a dirty bomb, Contagion is the estimated death toll projected in numbers rather than actual lives.

The film begins with a coughing Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has just stopped in Chicago to visit a lover en route to Minneapolis after a business trip in Hong Kong. By the time she gets home to doting hubby Mitch (Matt Damon), Beth’s condition has worsened. Then she has a seizure and dies. That about sums up the character development in Contagion.

Soderbergh directs a movie that features an all-star cast but gives the assembled talent very little to do. Kate Winslet is a CDC doctor who heroically thrusts herself into the hot zone, Laurence Fishburne plays her boss who is coming off the PR nightmare of the swine flu, Jude Law trades in his pretty boy looks for a crooked front tooth as an unscrupulous blogger who uses the fear surrounding the outbreak for his own gains and Marion Cotillard is a WHO worker who is kidnapped by the Chinese and held in exchange for a vaccine that doesn’t exist. Then there’s Bryan Cranston, John Hawkes and Elliott Gould, but they have less than five minutes of screen time combined.

As the virus spreads, killing millions, Soderbergh chronicles the eventual collapse of society as people struggle for survival. Some sections are admittedly quite chilling but most of Contagion’s fear factor takes place off the screen. I squirmed more when the guy behind me coughed over and over than at what was taking place on screen. But with so many stories, it is impossible for any of them to ring completely true. There is just too much crammed in here: panic on the streets, political conspiracies and mass graves as the new MEV-1 wreaks global havoc.

Although some of the subplots are quite weak (such as Cotillard as the kidnapped doctor), a few of the actors rise above the paltry script to flesh out their characters. Damon is particularly effective as the MEV-1 immune father, creating a performance of measured nuance. Of course, his cheating wife and his stepson have just died in front of him, but his quiet desperation to keep his remaining daughter alive is a raft of poignancy and naked emotion in a film that has no room for either. Jennifer Ehle also stands out as a CDC doctor who injects herself with a test vaccine to expedite a process that would take months and cost millions of more lives.

Soderbergh is a director that flits between grit and glossy in a career dotted with hits and misses. Contagion definitely lands on the glossy end of the spectrum, more akin to the director’s soulless Ocean’s heist films than meatier offerings such as The Limey or Out of Sight. Worst of all, I wasn’t really sure what the point was here. That we’re one genetic mutation away from being completely fucked? That ingenuity and technology will ultimately save us? Soderbergh tacks on an unnecessary epilogue that shows us the origin of the disease, despite the CDC figuring it an hour beforehand. Contagion is an ambitious project, but, like its MEV-1 virus, what starts out as frightening is little more than an afterthought by the time its credits roll.

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