By david roark
September 9, 2011
When Contagion’s end credits roll, we certainly feel horrified, carefully considering the reality of an epidemic and realizing how often we touch our faces and the objects around us, the very thing that spreads a fatal virus in this new thriller by Steven Soderbergh. The problem is, once all the thrills and chills finally wear off, we’re left empty—with nothing to contemplate and no emotion for the millions of people we’ve just seen killed on the screen. For that, Soderbergh’s film proves to be fine entertainment but terribly lifeless.
Starring nearly every A-list actor you can think of, the story follows an array of characters amid the global outbreak of a highly deadly, highly contagious virus. Matt Damon plays the protagonist, Mitch Emhoff, a family man whose adulterous wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) first contracts the virus in Hong Kong and brings it back to the U.S. This leaves a circle of government scientists—Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard and Jennifer Ehle—on a mission to find a cure before it’s too late. The antagonist, a charismatic journalist named Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), however claims the government has already found a cure but is holding out to make money, gathering quite a following in the process.
Up to this point, Soderbergh has always criticized big government and big corporations. Two of his films—Erin Brockovich and The Informant!—feature whistleblowers as their leads. But here he surprisingly does just the opposite, nearly praising the big man while attacking the little man. Soderbergh portrays Law’s whistleblower as a lying, selfish scumbag, even taking a few hits at journalism itself, and paints humankind as a wicked and violent breed. When the contagion spreads and the situation worsens—and millions of people suddenly die—humanity follows suit, panicking and behaving like animals in their fight to survive.
All this hysteria, of course, makes for a gripping ride, and Soderbergh captures it like the veteran director that he is. Besides keeping the film at an urgent pace, he showcases some fine shots of San Francisco, displaying a sense of artistry and scope, and uses his ridiculously impressive cast fairly well, especially given the number of performers involved. Though Damon gives a convincing turn as a loving and courageous father, Law stands out the most. His character doesn’t have much depth—no characters do—but he’s incredibly intriguing and provocative, not to mention funny. In a scene where he confronts a government scientist on national television, we almost begin to like him, until we later discover his motives.
Given such performances and the invasive atmosphere of suspense, there’s no denying Soderbergh has created one of the better thrillers of the year. Unfortunately, though, in the midst of doing so, he’s also created a moral vacuum. He weaves a few moral characters into his story, like Damon’s honorable family man —small glimmers of hope—but his film as a whole shows no concern for morality. It instills in us fear and chaos, merely for entertainment’s sake, and ultimately devalues human life. This is apparent in the millions of people who die and go unrecognized, while Soderbergh stays completely disinterested, and in the fact that, when all is said and done and the final sequence ends, we’re left disturbed yet unmoved.