While talking to a friend who was on the fence about seeing “Contagion,” I threw out the following selling point without really even thinking: “It’s a Steven Soderbergh movie.” Then I recoiled for a second and actually thought about what that meant. Granted, I haven’t seen his watershed indie “Sex, Lies & Videotape,” but when I look back at his filmography, I wouldn’t label many of them directorial triumphs. ”The Informant!” succeeds mostly because of Matt Damon, “Erin Brockovich” is 100% Julia Roberts, and the slickness of the “Ocean’s” series is what made them popular. ”Traffic” is, I suppose, although I don’t think I would recommend that.
So a Soderbergh movie with a cast of eight Oscar nominees (so many that two didn’t even make the poster) had no shot at being a director’s movie … or so I thought. Surprisingly, this is a movie where Steven Soderbergh is the biggest and most brightly shining of all the stars. He’s in total control of this vehicle, setting the mood from the first frame and then keeping it an even-keeled movie even when Scott Z. Burns’ script goes a little haywire.
In a time where hyperlink cinema has become a hackneyed plot device, Soderbergh, one of the pioneers of the style with “Traffic,” reminds us why it’s even around in the first place. These stories can be linked across countries because technology and globalization has made us linked into a common destiny. Yet in the decade since “Traffic,” several events have linked us as well: 9/11 and various disease threats, such as SARS and the swine flu scare. A thin thread of paranoia connects us all, and Soderbergh gently reveals to us that this link exists in the opening stages of the film. And then he proceeds to vibrate that thread at pulse-pounding frequencies with his unflinching realism to then make sure we feel that uncomfortable pit in our stomach every single second of the film.
The film follows the outbreak of a mysterious viral outbreak beginning, it appears, with the death of Gwenyth Paltrow’s Beth Emhoff. From there, it hits at just about every angle to provide a full perspective on what a modern-day pandemic would look like – and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t wind up looking EXACTLY like Soderbergh’s cinematic vision. From the medics to the CDC officials to the lunatic bloggers to the poor villages in third-world countries to the upper-class American neighborhoods, no one is spared. So don’t expect to have the comfort of leaning back and saying, “No, this couldn’t possibly happen to me, it’s just a movie.” It could happen to you, which makes it even scarier.
The thrills come more from Soderbergh’s execution of the script rather than from the plot itself, which is rather uneven and seems to shift between storylines without much rhyme or reason, often leaving some untouched for long chunks of time. But that’s not to say Burns’ script is unremarkable; indeed, it pulls no punches and leaves little to the realm of fiction that isn’t necessary. The virus that ravages earth in “Contagion” is closely based on the Nipah virus, and scientists have declared the film to be one of the most accurate depictions of massive viral infections. In essence, he’s setting Soderbergh up for a total alley-oop.
Oh, and that nice cast helps too. You care that Mitch Emhoff and his daughter are struggling with boredom and loneliness because it’s not some hack actor doing a Matt Damon impersonation, it’s actually Matt Damon. You get freaked out when Dr. Erin Mears gets awfully close to the virus because there are few better than Kate Winslet to make you care and fear for a character. These actors take big, complicated moral issues and make them so gripping that you have to ask yourself if you would be as brave – or as cowardly – if faced with a similar situation.
But it’s still Soderbergh who makes the fear central to “Contagion” spread through us like a virus (sorry, couldn’t resist). With the help of a throbbing techno score by Cliff Martinez and the rest of the team below the line, the movie tingles with an uncomfortable but masterful buzz. He totally realizes an apocalyptic vision of a world destroyed by disease, largely because of distrust of medical authorities after the overblown swine flu episode and an ingrained predisposition to just pretend that everything is alright when it isn’t. But when the authorities are right and people start dropping like flies, the world starts to look like post-Katrina New Orleans, both in terms of the landscape and the prevailing primality of humans. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of, but Soderbergh effortlessly makes it real. B+ /