Returning to her family in Minnesota after a business trip in Hong Kong, Beth Emhoff’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) supposed bad case of jet lag takes a turn for the worse. Suddenly racked with severe seizures, she dies in hospital. However, her mysterious disease quickly begins to spread, forcing researchers from the Centre for Disease Control and the World Health Orginization (Kate Winslet, Lawrence Fishburne, Jennifer Ehle and Marion Cotillard) to face the crisis head on as they work to manage emerging clusters, develop a cure and trace the growing epidemic back to it’s origin.
While other films with similar conceits have struggled to retain a sense of credibility and humanity amidst the enormity of the undertaking, Contagion manages to elevate itself immediately through screenwriter Scott Z Burns’ meticulous attention-to-detail, brainy referencing of previous health scares and its persistent focus on the intimate experiences of its range of characters. Particularly affecting are Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) and Dr. Ellis Cheever’s (Lawrence Fishburne) devotion to the protection of their families. Intelligently, Burns implements a multi-layered storytelling pattern to ensure no stone is left unturned, even as the epidemic continues to advance across continents and modify itself against our technologies.
Everything is commendably held together by the all-star ensemble cast. As so many characters are introduced over the course of the film, it’s only expected that some, like Jude Law’s crass, spiky Alan Krumwiede and Elliot Gould’s expendable Dr. Ian Sussman, will fall through the cracks. Others, however, like Damon’s kindhearted Mitch, Winslet’s overburdened Dr. Erin Mears and Cotillard’s remorseful Dr. Leonora Orantes, bring levels of emotional resonance and authenticity that further enhances the quality of the film as a whole – which is extremely fortuitous considering the expansiveness of the film’s concept.
Composer extraordinaire Cliff Martinez’ insistent score (intermittently pierced by the flinching sound of coughs, sniffles and splutters) nobly propels the film along at a taut pace, building terror and apprehension with an inherent respect for its validity. The realistic nature is further accentuated by the docudrama-style Soderbergh applies to his penetrating direction. His continuous use of lingering shots of inanimate objects, in particular, serve as constant reminders of the increasing menace.
In Contagion, Soderbergh and his all-star cast have skilfully mastered a unsettling, absorbing and frightfully realistic pandemic drama that adeptly re-energises the disaster genre formula.