In a world of social networking and 24 hour media, it seems like the perfect movie to highlight the times that we live in is Contagion. As much about the metaphorical as it is about the actual, the film looks at a terrible illness that is spread as much through Twitter, Facebook and other social networks as it is through human contact. Patient zero is Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), whose hollow, sweating face is the first we’re confronted with and sets the tone for what’s to come.
The film is about an infection that spreads through any human interaction and kills its host within 24 hours. Through this crisis we follow the lives of various characters – Mitch, a father (Matt Damon), Alan Krumwiede, a blogger (Jude Law), Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard), Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) – as they fight through the misinformation and greenish phlegm to save the ones they love and find their place in this new and dangerous world.
Much of the film takes place in offices and laboratories, and the musical score is similarly anaesthetised and clinical to reflect this. The tight electronic rhythms give much-needed pace and vigour to scenes of people in biohazard suits with syringes and microscopes and the whole thing marries very well. The cinematography also carries this precise, surgical quality – mostly static and bleached slightly blue, the labs are harshly lit while the homes are just a tad darker than they need to be. Everything is cold and untouchable, just like the film’s dead.
There are some drawbacks – the film never carries much weight and so there never seems to be much tension conveyed to the audience. It’s difficult to see, even with 1/12 of the entire population of the world at stake, what the big deal is. This is because there is no urgency in the film at all – even with kidnappings and millions of deaths, it’s difficult to care about any of the characters in this film. Everything that is of importance is brushed over quickly, or cut into one of many montage sequences.
The film pitches itself as a more cerebral version of 28 Days Later, or a more upbeat prelude to The Stand, but it is what the film loses to achieve this that could have made this film great. If there were scenes of real peril, with Matt Damon wading through bodies in the street or with Kate Winslet racing through town to catch up with an infected bus, the film would have made the audience care a little. As it stands, Steven Soderbergh clearly has a lot to say with this film, but he chose to concentrate more on the aesthetics more than the delivery of his message. His words come across as hollow and empty, but they are wrapped in a really polished and clean-looking box.