Kate Winslet makes her return to the big screen after a nearly three year hiatus (following acclaimed performances in The Reader and Revolutionary Road) in the new ensemble film Contagion, playing an “epidemic intelligence officer” (as opposed to a regular epidemiologist, I guess). She’s investigating the mysterious death of a woman who comes down with a contagious disease, and must track down everyone the dead woman came in contact with, including her husband (played by Matt Damon).
Contagion is the latest in a line of medical horror thrillers involving communicable diseases. There have been many previous films, including the 1995 film Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo, various zombie films, and even Rise of the Planet of the Apes, still in theaters, ends with a highly contagious virus being spread around the world, conveniently setting the stage for the sequel.
The question is not, ‘Has this movie been done before?’, because the obvious answer is yes. Disaster films are nearly as formulaic as romantic comedies: There are only so many ways you can get from Plot Point A to Plot Point Z. All Contagion-like films feature similar stock characters: the heroic scientists who valiantly strive to save the day; the authoritarian government officials who impose martial law ostensibly for the greater good; the hero who swears he’s not infected; and so on.
These disaster movies are often easy to write, from a screenwriting point of view, because they have a tension-building device central to the plot. In many scripts the screenwriter must find new ways to create, maintain, and elevate tension throughout three acts. But in contagion films the audience knows that with each passing minute things are only getting worse-the virus is spreading whether the characters are actively doing anything about it onscreen or not-and in the end either the looming menace will be stopped (Outbreak) or it won’t (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). I’m not casting aspersions on the writers-it’s still possible to come up with an original, clever way to breathe life into a by-the-numbers script. The problem with Contagion is that the writers may have tried too hard.
Director Steven Soderbergh makes sure we know where we are in the epidemic, as he throws updates of population statistics on the screen every now and then. Contagion takes pains to point out that with today’s high speed mass transit and high-density population urban centers we’re all vulnerable, and that dangerous germs and viruses can hop continents in mere hours. All the high-tech graphics and (presumably true) CDC statistics that Soderbergh takes such great pains to highlight are intended to make us all feel vulnerable, as if to hammer home that this threat is very real, and-some day, God forbid-might actually be a reality. All that is true-and trite. This verisimilitude has been pointed out in every similar movie since the 1980s.
The first half of the film seems promising, but sputters and finally loses its way under the weight of a bloated cast and their scattered subplots. It’s great to have so many good actors in a cast (Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Matt Damon, etc.), but the problem is giving them all a big enough role to merit their involvement (and paychecks). Soderbergh can frame his shots with the best of them, but when it comes to the story he doesn’t seem sure what to focus on, so we jump back and forth among various storylines, some of them interesting, others half-baked.
For example Jude Law appears as a conspiracy theorist blogger nutjob who advocates a worthless homeopathic remedy instead of a proven vaccine to combat the disease, and by the time a CDC worker is kidnapped and held for ransom (though her absence is apparently not noticed for weeks), the film’s credibility is in tatters. (Even less explicably, the last time we see her in the film she’s apparently running through an airport to help her kidnappers.) I strongly suspect that there were interesting stories about these characters that were left on the editing room floor due to time constraints. Soderbergh should have requested a tighter rewrite instead of trying to cram everything in. Soderbergh finally gives up on trying to follow the genesis of this contagion, and the epidemiological detective story of how exactly the virus came into being isn’t revealed until literally the last few minutes of the film, more or less as an afterthought.