The scenario of a humanity-threatening virus outbreak is on that has been depicted many times in movies; from the bluntly titled but fantastic Outbreak to pretty much every zombie film in existence, it seems like poor old Earth needs to strengthen its immune system. In Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh offers us the opportunity to witness the more realistic side to a global epidemic from various points of view, but like a supermodel at 7am, is it a side we really want to see?
After returning from an overseas business trip, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) suddenly becomes gravely ill, and within a few days of showing symptoms, she dies. When her son begins to feel the same as his mother, her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) searches frantically for answers in his attempt to save his family. Meanwhile, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention begins to feel the pressure of his job as the mystery illness continues to claim more lives, whilst nosey blogger Alan Krumwiede claims to have a cure, one known to by the government who are holding it back for eventual financial gain. Cheever orders the help of expert Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to determine the origin of the virus, and ultimately a way in which it can be vaccinated against. But with the virus mutating, adapting and the death toll rising faster than the scientists can cope with, the chances of a cure become terrifyingly slim.
It’s no surprise to learn that the all star cast contains an extraordinarily high number of actors and actresses who have either won or have been nominated for an Academy Award. It is surprising then, that Contagion doesn’t particularly let a particular talent lead, mainly due to its sprawling narrative and numerous plots. The closest thing to a leading actor, however, is Laurence Fishburne who connects the majority of the stories due to his character being a high ranking authority of the Disease Control and Prevention Center.
Overall, the performances can be seen either one of two ways: the cast is of such a high calibre that no one stands out, or they all play the roles in an underwhelming fashion. Personally, I’m opting for the latter explanation. Whilst possibly being the most interesting character, Jude Law seems rather out of place and If I had to speculate as to why he was chosen for the role, I’d say it relates back to the point I made at the start of this paragraph.
Whilst a multiple narrative gives us an idea of how different people and parts of the world are affected, it comes at a price. Character development is virtually none existent, making it impossible to be emotionally involved with the events. The sub plot involving Marion Cotillard is the closest the film comes to stirring the audiences’ feelings, but it is neglected for far too long as other plots clamber for your attention.
Without a doubt though, the biggest flaw of Contagion is its almost criminal misleading advertising campaign. The posters and trailers suggest an apocalyptic virus that rapidly spreads, with the films content being thrill-a-minute. Never has a phrase been so literal; the thrill lasts for a minute. That said, it’s not a total bore, it’s just that Contagion is certainly more of a slow burning, dialogue driven drama than we were lead to believe.
On paper, Contagion looks a sure fire success: a hugely talented cast, an established director and a subject matter that audiences enjoy. But due to the expectations raised by bad advertising, serious pacing issues and weak performances in relation to what the cast could and have given in the past, the film largely disappoints. Granted, the paranoia factor of how it spreads is effective, but the characters are simply too one dimensional to care about.
To compare with another film in the genre, if Outbreak is the actual virus, Contagion is the tedious paperwork that comes with it.