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With: Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin, Elliott Gould, Enrico Colantoni, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan
Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for disturbing content and some language
Running Time: 105
Date: 09/03/2011

Contagion (2011)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Sick and Tired

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Note: In 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have gone back to see this movie. I have not and I don't particularly want to. Regardless of how eerily timely it has become, I still don't think it's a good movie. But I did re-read my review from 2011, which now sounds rather clueless, especially the opening paragraph. I decided to leave it as is, perhaps as an illustration of my naïveté, or perhaps for historical perspective.

It's hard to know just what director Steven Soderbergh was thinking in making Contagion. The movie, about the outbreak of a mysterious and deadly new disease, feels oddly mistimed. There's usually some kind of medical scare during the fall and winter, some kind of bird flu or SARS epidemic or something, but I suspect that more people are thinking about jobs and money at the moment. I doubt some mystery disease is very high on the fear list at the moment.

Additionally, though it's certainly not the first "disease outbreak" movie, it's probably the first that's not a science fiction movie, or a horror movie, or a thriller. In other words, there are no thrills, no chills, and nothing else to draw viewers into see the movie, other than the disease itself.

Whatever they were thinking, perhaps Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant!) should have been thinking about the story and the characters, each of which are awfully thin. This is yet another ensemble piece wherein the strength of a first-rate cast was probably supposed to make up for the fact that not much happens to any one character.

I suppose we can start with Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Beth Emhoff, the first victim. She travels to Hong Kong, comes down with a fever and a sore throat, and within a few days has a seizure, spews some white stuff from her lips, and dies. Her son quickly follows. We don't see Gwyneth again, except for an autopsy sequence and some flashbacks.

Her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon) survives thanks to a "natural immunity." What a great coincidence... otherwise there wouldn't have been a movie. He does everything he can to project his teen daughter. And that's his entire plot arc.

Other characters fare about the same. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the CDC (Center for Disease Control) gets himself into trouble by thinking about others, including his woman in the field (Kate Winslet), his wife (Sanaa Lathan), and the company janitor (John Hawkes). By the end, he's still thinking about others.

One character, a doctor (Marion Cotillard), is actually kidnapped and taken to a remote Hong Kong village, so that she can be used as ransom when the vaccine is developed. She's apparently there for many months, and the movie mostly forgets about her during this time. When we see her again, she's teaching school (?!).

But perhaps the worst is Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a blogger based in San Francisco that tries to hype up a homeopathic cure. He manages to make tons of money during the crisis, and even fakes having the disease so that he can "cure" himself on his blog. Apparently because he is a blogger and not a "real journalist," he has absolutely no ethics. Many characters point this out again and again, and Law's arrogant performance underlines it. Whenever anyone points a finger at him, he points one back at corporations; and in this movie, the corporate people seem kind of nice.

Jennifer Ehle plays a key character, a scientist that finds the vaccine, but even she feels secondary. None of these characters are open to us; they're all essentially the same at the end as they were at the beginning (if they survive). I certainly don't want any artificially inserted personal dramas -- like someone who gets over his fear of heights or something -- but there must be some way to make the characters come to life during an international crisis.

Soderbergh relies heavily on a kind of pulsing, electronic score to artificially provide suspense that isn't really there; since the music draws attention to itself, it doesn't work. So what's left? Is this a kind of warning? Not really, since the events in the movie are mostly random. Are we supposed to be kinder to each other? I suppose, but it's not like many of the characters in the movie are unkind.

It's a mystery to me. But if the point is to make us feel depressed and disappointed, then Contagion succeeds.

Warner Home Video has released a Blu-Ray/DVD combo set that also includes an "ultraviolet" digital copy. The only extras are three little featurettes, including interviews with some of the actors. The third one is a quasi-comical little industrial film about how to prevent diseases from spreading.

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