has all the markings of a great film: road-tested director (Steven Soderbergh), A-list cast (Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard), and a chilling premise (a lethal, fast-spreading virus). So, why isn’t it? I kept asking myself that question as I observed the tepid response of the preview audience. I found myself getting lost in the amazingly competent performances of the actors, but the audience was just getting lost. First of all, Contagion is deadly serious (pun intended). There is absolutely no humor in the film to give you a break from the bleak story line. The narrative itself is uneven, and interesting characters are never developed. There’s a dynamite story somewhere in this film, but it remains frustratingly elusive.
The film begins on Day 2 of the pandemic. Do you ever get to find out about Day 1? Yes, but I’m not revealing that. The story needs all the suspense it can get! The film’s trailer reveals the death of the first main character, so I’m not spoiling anything here. Beth Emhoff (Gywneth Paltrow) gets sicker and sicker as she returns home to Minneapolis from a business trip to Hong Kong. She has a layover in Chicago where she exposes a former lover when they hook-up for a quickie (not shown in the film). She returns home to her second husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and their blended family – her young son Clark (Griffin Kane), and Mitch’s teen daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron). Her death is rapid and gruesome. Interspersed are scenes of the other early, unlucky victims in several large population centers: Hong Kong (of course), Chicago, London, Tokyo.
Enter the CDC in Atlanta where Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) is in charge of investigating the outbreak – that is until he gets usurped by the Department of Homeland Security. Bioterrorism is mentioned, but that goes nowhere. Actually, that might have been a more interesting direction for the film. Before that, he has sent Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to hot zone Minneapolis to try to get a hold on the virus, but other hot zones start popping up before you can say “drug-testing on humans”. The World Health Organization gets involved, and sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to Hong Kong to trace the origin of the virus. Meanwhile, iconoclastic virologist Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould) is working overtime to identify the virus’s structure so that a vaccine can be produced. Back at the CDC, two doctors, played by Jennifer Ehle and Demetri Martin, don those scary bio-hazard suits and begin looking for a vaccine. Much is made of the bureaucracy involved in testing, manufacturing, and releasing new vaccines, and it’s obvious that this virus spreads too rapidly for that. Someone’s going to have to break the rules to save the world. A couple of people do, and that’s where the film gets the little bit of dramatic tension it has.
The virus is airborne and can also be spread through touching surfaces, so it’s not long before the bodies start piling up and anarchy breaks out in Minneapolis. Jude Law plays Alan Krumwiede, a conspiracy blogger who has a huge following which increases from 2,000,000 to 12,000,000 when he claims to know of a homeopathic cure. He accuses the government, medical establishment, and the pharmaceutical companies of suppressing the information. Krumwiede may or may not have lied about the cure. It’s certainly suggested. His character is extreme and sort of sleazy, but his story line really goes nowhere. Seems like another missed chance to spice up the narrative. And that’s really the problem with the narrative. It jumps from place to place, serious situation to serious situation, and interesting undeveloped character to another, without much cohesion. Although we’re constantly reminded which “day” it is in the fight, it’s easy to lose track. It seems that we move from total shutdown of all services, anarchy in the streets, and mass graves for victims, to relative order without any transition other than citing which “day” it is in the timeline.
The actors have given us wonderful performances. They’ve created characters we’d love to know more about, but we’re left unsatisfied. Maybe the scope of the narrative is just too broad to include enough backstory on them. For instance, the Emhoff’s marriage is obviously less than perfect, but that’s only hinted at by a phone message between Beth and her paramour, and a brief statement by her mother that Beth “made some mistakes”. If their relationship and family were to be the focus of the story, we need to know more about them to really be emotionally invested in Mitch’s anguish. The same is true for the characters played by Elliot Gould, Kate Winslet, and Jennifer Ehle. I longed to know more about them.
Contagion is billed as an action/thriller. This simply does not come to pass. To really thrill an audience with the action, you need a clear-cut hero that you care about and a gripping, suspenseful sequence of events. A tiny bit of levity wouldn’t hurt, either. Throughout the film, I couldn’t help thinking of the 1995 film Outbreak , starring Dustin Hoffman, Renee Russo and Morgan Freeman. It had a similar plot about an Ebola-type virus, but it also had a love story and a real government cover-up to unify the plot. Sure, it was melodramatic and a little bit corny, but it was something that Contagion is not: Entertaining.
Because of the strength of the performances, I’m giving the film a somewhat higher rating than the narrative deserves. I just couldn’t help admiring what these amazing actors did with the little that was given to them.