“Contagion” is an intelligent, meticulous imagining of how a virus would wreak unimaginable havoc in the social media age. It’s like if smallpox had Instagram, or if the bubonic plague had been live-streaming on Facebook. But instead of relying on disease movie and TV tropes like “the only thing more dangerous than a virus is the people paranoid of getting it,” “Contagion” instead focuses on smart people trying to remain rational in a time of crisis, the violence and pillaging is only secondary.
The story starts with Beth, a blonde businesswoman played by Gwyneth Paltrow whose only souvenir from Hong Kong was a nasty cold. A couple of days later, Beth is dead, and now the world is trying to figure out how to stop the virus that took her life. Matt Damon plays her husband Mitch, who now must grapple with his wife’s death, the death of his step son, and keeping his teenage daughter alive.
On the scientific side is Dr. Ellis Cheever, the CDC head played by Laurence Fishburne, Dr. Leonora Orantes, the person tasked with finding the origin of the virus, Dr. Erin Mears, the woman tasked with coming up with a treatment plan, and Jude Law plays a snide, opportunistic blogger. There’s lots of hands being balanced here and lots of story to tell; but writer Scott Z. Burns and Steven Soderbergh do it mostly with ease. They find moments of pathos in quiet details, an emotional reveal that you might not notice if you aren’t paying attention.
Take for example the situation between Damon’s character and a man named John Mears, whom his wife has been sleeping with. We never meet Mears, except when being carried away on a stretcher, but every time we hear his voice he sounds immensely cooler than Damon, like she was settling for him, and makes us wonder if he’s feeling grief, remorse or hatred throughout the rest of the film.
Sometimes the balancing works, other times it falters. Dr. Orantes, played by Marion Cotillard, is a major component of the first act. She disappears for a while, but when she returns, it feels like the movie has separated into two, like her storyline is no longer having an effect or is being effected by what the other characters are doing.
For all it’s quiet nuance and planning, “Contagion” is still an emotional thriller. No director has ever really made viruses or lab techs look stylish, but Steven Soderbergh has a natural style that makes any story he’s a part of absolutely infectious.