Imagine the swine flu epidemic of a few years ago, only five times more deadly and 20 times more contagious, and you have Contagion, a new Steven Soderbergh-directed medical thriller.
The film, filmed all over the world at a $60 million budget, gets off to a very strong start, but eventually gets bogged down in questionable plotting and weak characterization.
Featuring, among others, all three leads of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Contagion certainly isn't lacking for star power. Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow are a married couple in Minnesota, with Kate Winslet playing a Centers for Disease Control scientist, Laurence Fishburne a CDC bureaucrat, Marion Cotillard a World Health Organization official, and Jude Law an Alex Jones-like conspiratorial blogger.
Soderbergh, whether in the three Oceans films or Traffic, has plenty of experience handling a large ensemble cast, but the structure of this film, written by Scott Z. Burns, is less successful. Strands of the plot often disappear for what feels like an hour of screen time, while others are resolved unsatisfactorily.
We get sections set in China, Japan and elsewhere, giving the film a bit of a "world movie" feel in the tradition to Babel and that sort of film—of course, then it forgets about Asia for long stretches.
In its first half, the movie follows the spread of the virus in what feels like real time, with documentary-like precision, as we see the panic, the government response, the political posturing, and efforts of scientists to isolate the virus and develop a cure.
It, in many ways, resembles the numerous zombie films of recent years, with hungry people roaming the streets looking for food and/or a cure. This isn't really a horror film, though, more of a procedural film and a thriller.
Contagion doesn't try to get political, to its credit; I was fearing a third act twist in which we find out an evil drug company was behind the whole thing. But the actual ending isn't especially well-done, either.
In fact, the film's only real political stand is an extremely weird, out-of-context anti-union vibe, as we're told on multiple occasions, apropos of nothing, that nurses or firemen are on strike and therefore refusing to save people's lives.
Even more strange is the script's stretching to make the characters ambiguous. Fishburne can't just be a hero ... he has to face trouble for sharing information with his girlfriend (who I thought was his daughter for 40 minutes of the movie).
And everything involving the ranting, idiotic Law character is a disaster—I'm still not sure if he's supposed to be a brave truth teller or a con man, and the movie doesn't seem to care.
If you can get past the movie repeatedly cutting away from him to less interesting characters, Damon gives a very subtle performance as a grieving father to his teenage daughter (an also very good Anna Jacoby-Heron).
Jennifer Ehle also gives a standout turn as one of the doctors looking for a cure, as does Winslet.
Now that movie producers have caught on to Breaking Bad, I love that Bryan Cranston is starting to get film roles, although once again he isn't given enough to do.
Contagion is not without its virtues, but it's hard to see exactly what its conclusion is: That contagious death is right around the corner for all of us? That hysteria is bad? I'm still not sure, and I don't know that the movie is, either.
The Silver Screen Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Roll Credits: Contagion
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle
Length: 1 hour 45 minutes