Contagion follows the rapid rise of a lethal airborne virus that kills within days. As the fast-moving epidemic grows, the worldwide medical community races to find a cure and control the panic that spreads faster than the virus itself. At the same time, ordinary people struggel to survive in a socity coming apart.
Several times in Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s eerily realistic depiction of a worldwide pandemic, the filmmaker elevates Cliff Martinez’s dynamic score above the dialogue in scenes of early responders taking stock of a fast rising death toll on several continents. What might be laxness is in fact a statement of intent. The tweaked electronica, with its menacing rhythms and mutating synths, represents the unknown, spreading disease, and it’s literally outpacing those trying to defeat it. You don’t hear what’s being said because it’s superfluous.
Like Traffic or his magisterial Che double bill, Contagion allows Soderbergh to dissect processes and examine their cool efficiencies and devastating actions. The film’s vicious MEV-1 virus is the character he admires most, and like the revolutionary campaign in Che: Part One – The Argentine he documents how it builds and spread, gaining momentum not through armed action but human contact.
Soderbergh uses movie stars as a kind of cipher. On one level he’s showing with the first American death, Gwyneth Paltrow’s businesswoman Beth Emhoff, who has just returned from a trip to Hong Kong, that he’s not playing favourites. Beth’s barely home a day before her bewildered husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), is being informed that she died. (The actor’s blank response on receiving the news is far more telling than any display of emotive grief.) But in cutting between an ensemble cast in multiple locations, he’s also saying that a pandemic is bigger than any single person. No one story is quintessential.
This is Soderbergh’s idea of an action movie, and when the hard nuts are required it’s the likes of Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard, respectively an Epidemic Intelligence Services officer and World Health organisation staffer, who stride purposefully across the screen. Soderbergh puts women on the front line, and at a time when the right in America is demonising anything to do with the state, it is dedicated government staffers who work ceaselessly until, in some cases, they literally die.
Scott Z. Burns’ screenplay throws out the odd boilerplate disaster line, including a "call everyone" and a "have you ever seen anything like this before?", but it’s generally supple enough to absorb Soderbergh’s fertile story sense. The story moves from the paranoia of early scenes, where innocuous public spaces become infection hotspots, to a rapid collapse of society: nurses go on strike, 911 stops taking calls, pharmacies are destroyed in riots, and violent anarchy becomes a casual occurrence.
Soderbergh matches the disease’s spread to the rush of incorrect information, some of it facilitated by Jude Law’s rabid San Francisco blogger, and he makes Damon’s Mitch the face of those struggling to hang on, vigilantly aiming to keep his remaining child, a teenage daughter, alive; truly, this is the film where the straying hands of teenage boys are potentially deadly.
The film wraps up tightly and somewhat too quickly, but it’s a delight to experience Soderbergh at the top of his game. Shooting the film himself, under his usual fake handle of Peter Andrews, Soderbergh never dwells on his set-pieces, flaunting their cost, but instead catches the tiniest inflections, such as the beatific smile on the face of Jennifer Ehle’s obsessive scientist when she makes a breakthrough. His sense of framing is striking, his shots are dynamic in the way they cut together. The end of the world couldn’t be in better hands.