With Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard; Running Time: 105 minutes; Rated PG-13 (for disturbing content and some language); Written by Scott Z. Burns; Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Summer has a few more days on the calendar, but it’s after Labor Day which means we’re going to start seeing the grown-up movies Hollywood saves for the end-of-year Oscar race. First out of the gate is CONTAGION, which is Steven Soderbergh’s best film since “Traffic” (2000). Like that film, it is a complex ensemble piece built around a single theme. In this case, it is the frightening prospect of an outbreak of a new and highly contagious disease.
The story begins on “Day 2” of the outbreak, where a business executive (Gwyneth Paltrow) falls ill upon her return from a trip to Hong Kong. Additional outbreaks begin around the world, and it’s happening so quickly that the people at the Center for Disease Control are having trouble isolating the virus that is the cause. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) is heading up the effort, and dispatches Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minneapolis where there is a “cluster” of people with the disease. Caught up in the increasing madness is Mitch (Matt Damon), who is helpless as members of his family succumb.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the World Health Organization’s Dr. Leonara Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is trying to isolate the initial cause of the disease, while in San Francisco, blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is one of the first to realize what is going on, but gets increasingly paranoid about the government’s response. Is he right that a common plant is the cure but the government is suppressing that information in favor of a potential vaccine manufactured by the big pharmaceutical companies?
The story unfolds logically and relentlessly, as we see scientists (including Elliot Gould in a cameo) racing against the clock to identify the virus and figure out how to fight it. The 1918 flu epidemic is cited as an example of a new disease having a devastating worldwide impact. Suddenly, this science fiction thriller doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. This is a story that could appear in tomorrow’s news, and the film is a frighteningly real virtual primer of what we might expect if faced with a similar outbreak.
Soderbergh respects his thesps, with Fishburne and Winslet turning in strong performances that are anything but glamorous. (Indeed, a daring scene with Gwyneth Paltrow is likely to become notorious as her “anti-glamour” image.) There are no villains here, although some characters respond better than others. What we have with “Contagion” is a story of ordinary people – some experts and some not – faced with the medical crisis of a lifetime. When one bureaucrat demands to know who’s paying for all this, we’re reminded that there are times when a coordinated response by the government is the answer to a crisis.
This is solid, intelligent filmmaking that will have you on the edge of your seat wondering how it’s all going to turn out. “Contagion” ends on a disturbing note, reminding us that even if we can learn how to combat various diseases, there’s no predicting when and how a new one might emerge. See this movie, even if you have to first rent a hazmat suit to feel comfortable in a theater full of people who are coughing, sniffling and sneezing.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.