Here it is: an opening night review of a star-studded film about a fast-spreading disease. It is very good but perhaps short of exceptional.
Contagion (Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, John Hawkes, Jude Law) – Did you ever wonder how bad SARS, bird flu, or H1N1 could have been? Watch Contagion and you will have an idea. That was the goal of wunderkind director Steven Soderbergh. Well, that and making a few million dollars. Contagion presents the picture that the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and every other government official wants you to understand about the development of a super-virus that spreads wildly, mutates and has no known cure. This film has no laughs, no qualms and little to no hope. What is has is exceptional acting by an all-star cast that was coaxed to participate by Soderbergh with the promise that they could shoot their parts in a short period of time (you guess why).
The story begins on Day 2 of the epidemic. Front and center is Beth Emhoff (Paltrow), a globetrotting business executive, wife and mother, who is headed back to the states from a trip to Asia. She isn’t feeling well when we see her re-joining her husband, Mitch (Damon). As she gets sicker, so does her son (Mitch’s stepson). And this spirals into a problem of (literally) epidemic proportions. First, there’s an Asian businessman, an old Chicago friend with whom she is having an affair, a waiter, and almost everyone else with whom Beth has had contact. The disease, which we learn spreads from contact, is winning the battle over physicians and researchers from all of the international government health organizations (WHO, CDC). Leading the efforts is Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) at the CDC. A reliable actor with a powerful presence, he is both researcher and manager, bringing in Dr. Erin Mears (Winslet), who quickly takes charge of the efforts on the ground and in the lab. An epidemiologist with a cause and little ego, she devotes everything to get on top of the disease, which has also infected her own father.
There are a couple of sub-plots, neither of which work since they are overwhelmed by the global calamity that kills multi-millions of people. One sub-plot involves a janitor at the CDC (Hawkes), who has a special relationship with Dr. Cheever. The other involves an Internet conspiracy theorist (Law) who believes that all of these health organizations are in bed with pharmaceutical companies and politicians. Worse yet, he intends to tell his millions of followers that they shouldn’t take whatever immunization is developed because it will be insufficiently tested.
I saw this film on IMAX and that was an advantage. But it isn’t critical the way many of today’s high concept, big budget, CG-heavy films are. While Damon is the lead star, he doesn’t dominate the film, which was a wise decision by Soderbergh. The film is about a worldwide problem, and the characters we see span the globe. This also means that the best actors tend to shine, and it is Damon, Winslet, and Fishburne that come through the most. Law and Marion Cotillard (who plays a WHO executive) are wasted. Maybe Soderbergh had a star or two too many. But this is an engaging movie that will likely scare the heck out of you.