Contagion is the latest film from the ever diverse Steven Soderbergh, a director who can go from mainstream fair like the entertaining Ocean’s series to smaller stuff like The Girlfriend Experience, and Bubble. With Contagion he seems to have mixed those two sensibilities, delivering a compelling, thought-provoking and often flat-out frightening film about a worldwide pandemic that seems all too real.
Starting off with one or two people, an unknown, highly contagious virus begins to infect people. Its impact grows, multiplying its effect to four, then six, then twelve, and eventually to a scale where it can no longer be ignored by the rest of the world. We follow a several people in various countries as the virus starts to spread even more while scientists try frantically to find a cure. Of course, once news of the virus travels then, as a say, the virus is the least of their worries – “nothing spreads like fear,” as the tagline states.
It’s a pretty basic set up but Soderbergh is such a talented, meticulous filmmaker that he rings every possible thing out of it. Spanning all sorts of different countries we get the chance to see how the virus is affecting not just one or two groups of people in one location but a variety of different places across the globe.
The reason the film works so well is the fact that we can all relate to it. In one way or another we’ve all been sick in our lives and it explores the possibility of “What if it had been a hell of a lot worse? What if I hadn’t gotten better?” It also bluntly draws attention to the fact that we touch our face, taps, door handles, walls, mobile phones and, of course, each other (etc.) more than we might think, therefore making you more socially aware. I have to admit when walking out after seeing the film my awareness of those around me was heightened. It’s rare a mainstream film can have that sort of power beyond simply watching it.
For film buffs the draw will be director Steven Soderbergh himself (who is apparently planning to retire after his next few movies), who has been a critical success for more than two decades now with films like Traffic, Out of Sight, his two-part Che biopic and even the successful Ocean’s trilogy (to name but a few). However, for mainstream movie goers the cast is going to be the draw and what an impressive cast it is, with the likes of Matt Damon, Gwyneth Platrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Laurence Fishburne appearing. But one of the greatest strengths of the movie is how it utilises that cast. It’s not in any way showy but plays it like an ensemble. It doesn’t go out of its way to dramatically introduce a particular star in a way that proclaims “Hey look! It’s Matt Damon!” but gives them as much or as little screen time as the story needs, a case of the actors serving the characters/story and not the other way around (as it should be).
With David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and now Soderbergh’s Contagion, it’s clear 2011 has been a year for worldwide apocalypse movies. While the other two perhaps paint a more elegant, maybe even beautiful view of that sort of story, Contagion plays it entirely straight and completely realistic. It’s not a movie without its problems – I think there are some cliche traps it falls into at times – but for the most part this is an enthralling, almost exhausting, experience that’s both strangely entertaining in the moment and has you pondering it afterwards. This is the level that Soderbergh is able to work at even now and I think, if he does retire, the film world will be a lesser place without him.
This review was previously published at Blog Critics.