Fall is off to a great start with Steven Soderbergh‘s Contagion kicking off the September releases. With an all star cast – including Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet and Jude Law among others – the film follows a new disease from Day 2 on as it infects the population, and scientists and doctors attempt to control and cure it. Soderbergh deftly avoids most of the genre’s pitfalls by keeping the film in a “you are there” approach that grounds the material, and will have most audiences reaching for the Purell when the film ends.

The Players:

  • Directed By: Steven Soderbergh
  • Written By: Scott Z. Burns
  • Starring: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle
  • Original Music by: Cliff Martinez
  • Cinematography by: Peter Andrews (aka Steven Soderbergh)

The Plot:

Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) returns to Minnesota from a trip abroad with what appears to be a slight cold, though possibly just jet lag. The next day she’s having seizures and is hospitalized. It’s a huge shock to her husband Mitch (Damon), especially when she dies shortly thereafter. He’s immune, but his son and daughter are not. As the disease spreads the CDC reacts by sending in Dr. Erin Mears (Winslet) to investigate Beth’s death and they try to contain the outbreak, but between Beth’s stop in Chicago (to visit an old lover) to the others in Hong Kong who were around her, the disease quickly goes global. The government tries to both solve it – with the lead doctor being Dr. Ally Hextall (Ehle) – and contain it. But in the 21st century word can’t be contained, especially when people like Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) write about it on the internet and hope to profit from it.

The Good:

  • Ensemble: One of the things that old school filmmakers knew about using a lot of stars in their films was that having familiar faces grounds you immediately in which location you’re at, regardless of where the last scene took place. Marion Cotillard’s character is in Asia, Jude Law’s in San Fransisco, Matt Damon’s in Minnesota – the film darts around the globe, but because the plot follows the disease you never feel lost, and all of the actors get a moment to shine. With all the heavy hitters in the cast, it’s surprising that Jennifer Ehle walks away with the movie. As one of the key doctors trying to figure out a cure, Ehle manages to be smart, confident and surprisingly sexy (especially for someone wearing a Tyvek suit for much of the film). Though Ehle’s been acting for a while now, this is that role. She’s going to be in a lot more shortly.
  • Follow the Disease: Though the film does develop its characters well enough, the film never tries to drum up too much added melodrama for the situation. There is some melodrama – especially with Damon’s Emhoff character, who has a family that isn’t safe and as the disease progresses has to worry about his daughter not only staying safe, but also the fact that she’s a tween girl who wants to live a normal life. That works – it humanizes the consequences – but often these films pile incident on incident (often there’s a couple about to get divorced, a love triangle, etc.). As such the film work like gangbusters because it functions more as a procedural.
  • Getting Under Your Skin: The film opens with a sequence where it shows people touching things, be it public locations, their faces, or a glass handed to them. Soderbergh does a brilliant job of setting the viewer on edge on how easy we treat most of the world, and how often people expose themselves to the possibility of germs. There’s just enough of that to make anyone freaked out.

The Bad:

  • Cleanliness: Though never as terrible as Traffic at its worst, there are some plot points that either go nowhere (the Cotillard section feels like a throwaway, though that’s the point), or goes for the hammer of obviousness. This may be a byproduct of this sort of storytelling, and for the most part the film does a good job of avoiding being cloying. Thankfully such intrusions are kept to a minimum, but they’re also the things that stick out later as why the film isn’t a masterpiece. But, hey, settling for being a really good film is good enough.

Overall:

This is Soderbergh at his best; Contagion is fascinating to watch. Though some might prefer a more horrific “what if” situation, the film communicates great ideas about how our society functions, and where it breaks down. And more than any recent picture, Contagion really captures the internet era (arguably the film is more about that than the disease), where people are texting their reactions to tragedy, and someone leaking word about a possible shutdown or blockade goes as viral as the virus itself.

Rating: 8.5/10

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Trailer: