Let's make one thing clear from the onset here. This is no Outbreak.
That film, released in 1995, was a big budget "thriller" where a monkey released an Ebola-like virus onto an unsuspecting populace and the CDC is brought in. Quarantines occur. The military is involved and a big ensemble cast is involved. It fell short, to say the least, of expectations.
Contagion hums along at a brisk pace and thanks to Soderbergh's direction winds up a tense and truly thrilling portrayal of a modern day plague.
A black screen. A barking cough. Beth Emhoff's (Gwyneth Paltrow) ruddy complexion tells a tale much more awful than one might think. The plausibility that is inherent in the picture is that Soderbergh focuses the attention on the mundane interactions between people. It is a quiet terror that lurks in the scenes of showing a woman paying for drinks, the bartender taking the card in hand and touching a computer screen. We know, right from the start, that the spread of germs are imminent and thus sickness is inevitable.
It is these small interactions paired with the fact that screenwriter Scott Burns and Steven Soderbergh actually bothered to make all the science behind this plausible. Kate Winslet, a CDC doctor sent to Minnesota to deal with the aforementioned Emhoff's death and other cases springing up, and Jennifer Ehle, a CDC lab rat who might just be the true savior of us all, are of particular note here. Both give amazingly strong performances that give this film just the push it needs to go from being good to great.
There is panic worldwide over the turn of events but ultimately Soderbergh scales down the carnage. He, instead, chooses to show what, no doubt, is happening everywhere through the eyes of the recently widowed Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon). The streets of Minneapolis soon turn into a war zone with looting rampant, people scared out of their minds and authorities starting to lose control. This was a great choice on the part of Soderbergh. The chaos is apparent and the brief mentions of riots and problems elsewhere is all that is needed to set the tone for this pandemic.
The head of the CDC Ellis Cleever (Laurence Fishburne) is poised and clearly a professional though he seems to be faltering somewhat near the end of the film and makes a potentially career-ending decision to make sure that his loved ones are taken care of. Jude Law plays an Englishman-in-San Francisco blogger, Alan Krumwiede, who purports to spout nothing but the truth but is he? This was one of the few stumbles of the film, honestly, as I found the character one of the most interesting of the lot yet I got the feeling that, for time purposes, they had to trim some of his story. We start to question his motivations in the last act of the movie and see that, perhaps, he served to fan the flames of fear more than anything else. (Just a brief mention that the shot of the trash-filled and abandoned streets of San Francisco with posts of Krumwiede's face plastered up with contrasting messages of "Prophet" and "Profit" was a brilliant touch.)
This movie is what an epidemic picture should be. It spans the globe without batting an eye, clearly defines the path of the disease along the way and makes it very clear that when we're dealing with a virus that is so alien that there are going to be a LOT of people that die. The real effect of the movie is just how you start to feel once you're stepping foot outside the theater. I find myself feeling so damned paraonoid at the moment that I've washed my hands much much more than normal just today alone.
Soderbergh's trademark visual style is in full effect here and it only serves to make the pacing of an already taut script zoom along without lagging at all. This is a disaster movie that has much more intimate moments than one would think and, frankly, is an example of how auteurs should approach the epidemic picture in the future. One of the few in recent years that's done it right along with 28 Days Later. Seriously stop calling it a zombie movie already people.
Well worth the price of admission and see it in IMAX if possible. Come for the contagion but stay for the acting, great script and the fear. Believe it or not this movie inspires a whole lot more fear than you might think.