Although filled with big stars and amazing set-pieces, make no mistake, CONTAGION is not a big stupid Hollywood thriller like OUTBREAK–Steven Soderbergh has more ambitious plans than that–it’s actually a George Romero zombie movie without the zombies. As with Romero’s best work, Soderbergh is more concerned with how people react on a human level as society collapses around them..
He hammers the point home by killing off one of the biggest performers in the film in the first ten minutes. (*The trailers give away who, but I’m not gonna reveal it here). As the audience tries to digest this shocking–and immediate– turn of events, the director has the performer’s head cut open with a bonesaw on camera to demonstrate that the character is quite dead.
There’s a super-flu going around, killing almost everyone who comes into contact with it. Blogger Alan Krumweide (Jude Law) spreads crackpot theories about government conspiracies, while family man Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) tries to flee Minnesota to next-door Wisconsin, only to find a heavily armed National Guard has closed the state-to-state border.
As with Romero’s work, a panicky public turns on itself and begins wholesale looting, rioting and the downfall of society grows. There are also a couple nods to Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER.
As with JAWS (which one character references), the main character of the movie–the virus itself–is off-screen, but it’s presence is felt continuously through the film. The movie starts on Day 2 of the virus, and every time someone coughs or rubs their face and touches a public place–like a railing on the city bus, a glass or proffered credit card–you feel it and find yourself worried about microscopic bugs.
Another brilliant touch is following even minor characters to their different destinations of cities around the world. We get the number of people in the population so the audience always realizes what is at stake.
Soderbergh, acting as his own cinematographer, takes a cast of movie stars and shoots them like real people, which adds to the movie’s realism. Gwyneth Paltrow looks flushed, sick and tired, Matt Damon is puffy and schlumpy as a regular guy and Jude Law is given a snaggletooth. It’s a tribute to the director that these stars would let themselves be filmed this way–and seeing these polished stars flecked and flawed gives the film a versmilitude it might have otherwise lacked. A televised showdown between Laurence Fishburne and Jude Law is wonderfully intense, as both characters are weak, but essentially telling the truth as they see it of the situation. It’s also fun to see the great Elliot Gould in a small but pivotal role.
Scott Z. Burns’ script keeps you guessing and the end of the film, when we finally see how Day One of the virus happened, nimbly demonstrates how our actions affect others and which character’s company affected the events of the film, is a shock ending worthy of Rod Serling.