The film does drag on and feels much longer than the 105 minutes it supposedly is, but the brilliant opening scene of Steven Soderbergh‘s latest feature Contagion immediately shoves you in for a terror trip around the globe. No matter how hard you try and no matter how uncomfortable it makes you, there’s no escape from it until the very end. Its story is intelligent and frightening and a genre-bending of mystery, thriller, sci-fi, and drama makes it one of the more ambitious mainstream films of the year thus far.
It is problematic that for all the talented A-list names involved, there are weak characters that we don’t really get to know, other than the fact that they either survive or die. But a fairer interpretation might be that Contagion focuses on a plague and its global impact, rather than on individuals. This disease affects different characters in different parts of the world in profound ways, yet what they all share in common is that they get caught up in it and their lives and will to survive begin to revolve around how to defeat it—and that’s all that really matters. The film opens with shots of characters in London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Minneapolis coughing, experiencing blurry vision and faintness, and other unruly symptoms. Amongst these people is an American woman named Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), who becomes increasingly frail just within a couple of days after returning from a trip in Hong Kong. When she suddenly dies, her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) struggles to come to terms with what exactly killed her and how the disease may affect him and the rest of his family.
With the threat of a pandemic looming forward, others are putting their lives at risk to launch full-scale investigations to trace the origins of the virus and to find a cure. Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) from the World Health Organization travels to Hong Kong to study the first cases, only to find out her collaborators’ true intentions. In Atlanta, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention manages an investigation into the mysterious disease-related deaths in the U.S., starting with sending Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minneapolis, where Mitch resided with Beth and still resides in with his surviving daughter. Also at the CDC, Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) works with Professor Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould) in order to develop a vaccine. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a freelance journalist named Alan Krumweide (Jude Law) becomes fascinated with the outbreak and covers developments on his blog. Having been exposed to the virus, he later claims that the drug Forsythia is the cure, causing mass hysteria in local pharmacies.
All of these stories stand on their own, some more fulfilling than others. For example, Mitch’s part of the story is arguably the most emotionally connected, as he’s one of the most obvious victims through the loss of his wife, at least amongst the major characters. He’s not conducting research as part of his job, just a civilian who’s suffering. However, that’s not to discredit the stories told through the eyes of the doctors, or even the journalist Alan. The multiple perspectives allows viewers to experience the frightening fictional pandemic from all walks of life and as if it were happening in the real world.
That “real world” aspect is mostly what makes Contagion such an engaging film, despite character overload and sometimes disjointed storytelling. It’s also what makes it a very squirm-worthy film. The situation in Contagion makes references to other deadly illnesses throughout history that have stricken the world with panic, from the Spanish flu to SARS. With the gratuitous amount of true stats and facts stated all throughout the movie, along with the general grim nature of the film, it truly instills the fear that it’s all too easy to get sick, and that in turn can spread widely and blow up into something else. There’s so much thought put into the script and a lot of feeling brought in by the characters that the audience is put into a state of paranoia. This is not a film for germaphobes and if you’re not one already, you may become one if you can manage to sit through the movie. Keep the hand sanitizer close by and sanitize frequently.