I suppose it’s difficult nowadays to create the sort of viral disease movie like ‘Outbreak (1995)’ without having some sort of zombie element in it. ’28 Days Later (2002)’ has proven to be a much more influential film than was appreciated at the time, because not only has it completely rejuvenated the zombie genre, it also made the infectious nature of the monsters such a central aspect that almost every zombie movie since has been as much a virus disaster as a creature feature. Thinking back to the first heyday of the zombie movie – i.e. The Romero Years – and this emphasis wasn’t nearly as pronounced with the ‘Dead’ Trilogy. Now, a drop of blood or a nick from an undead nail is as lethal and unwelcome as a full chomp from the bastards. Put another way, it’s more difficult to find the idea of a horrible infection interesting if it doesn’t turn you into a slobbering cannibal with speech problems.
It’s a long-winded way to frame the predicament ‘Contagion’ finds itself in. It’s the first straight infection story (no zombies or alien pods) from Hollywood since Dustin Hoffman was forced to chase Marcel from ‘Friends’ around, but while ‘Outbreak’ was released in a more innocent age – both cinematic and real-world – Steve Soderbergh’s attempt to show what effect a SARS-like outbreak would have on the world needs to compete not only with the likes of ‘The Walking Dead’, but also with the 9/11 and the recent London riots which illustrated the breakdown in social order caused by large-scale catastrophes more vividly than any movie could.
We start with Gwyneth Paltrow’s character returning ill from a business trip to Hong Kong and then succumbing to the mystery disease in a matter of days. The ailment spreads quickly, overwhelms Chicago and there are outbreaks all around the world. Government and scientists struggle to find the vaccine and contain both the social panic and the resultant breakdown in order. Lawrence Fishburne represents the command level of the structure as the head of Centers for Disease Control; Jennifer Ehle and Kate Winslet are the scientists; Jude Law plays a paranoid blogger spreading misinformation among an already desperate public; and Matt Damon is the man on the street stuck in a quarantined Chicago with his daughter. Two Christopher Nolan alumni, Marion Cotillard and Chin Han from The Dark Knight, provide the international perspective (there’s even a third one, Monique Gabriela Curnen who played the treacherous Ramirez in ‘The Dark Knight’, but she’s stuck in Chicago) battling the disease from Hong Kong. It’s a highly enjoyable ensemble cast which ensures that ‘Contagion’ is always watchable, but most are also burdened with curiously low-key roles and barely register a note of significance during the runtime. Particularly wasted are Winslet and Damon who are required to do very little of narrative substance and so just frown a lot and look concerned. Fishburne is great as always – he’s well on his way to succeeding Morgan Freeman as the noblest American actor of his generation – and it’s nice to see Ehle, Miss Bennet herself, look so composed and intelligent on the big screen. But Cotillard and Han are as wasted as Winslet and Damon, which is double the shame because they looked for a moment like they were going to be the most interesting aspect of the story. Instead, they disappear from the screen for a long time, and when they do eventually return the impetus goes flat.
Contagion is not compelling enough to be considered top-class cinema, despite all the talent in front of the camera and behind it. Often the film is at odds with itself, Soderbergh’s clinical style and neutral tone promising a scientific thriller but ultimately delivering a rather mundane human story. It also suffers from the fact that its depiction of a reeling civilization simply does not offer the kind of visceral, primal danger of the neo-zombie virus movies of the 2000s, the chilling allegory of the ‘Body Snatcher’ films, or just some good old popcorn excitement of ‘Outbreak’. It’s a classy effort, no doubt, smooth and polished, but also a little sterile and, unfortunately for a movie about lethal virus, somewhat safe. Contagion is all a little inconsequential (although it does have a rather nice coda), and in that very reminiscent of Nicole Kidman’s remake of ‘Invasion (2007)’, where a lot of stuff happens for very little effect and you’re left to wonder what all that was for. Where it was supposed to provoke shudders, Contagion only makes you shrug.