Never mind the scares from the current horror films like Fright Night or Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. If you really want to be terrified, the first 30 minutes of Contagion do the job just fine, with its realistically graphic depictions of citizens succumbing to a mysterious disease. Next comes an intriguing, albeit slow, middle third as dedicated doctors and investigators urgently search for cures and solutions. Two out of three may not be bad, but it is a shame that the final third of director Steven Soderbergh’s spooky pandemic movie finishes with a bit of a thud.
Returning to her family after a business trip in Hong Kong, Beth’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) supposed jet lag takes a turn for the worse and she dies in the E.R. after severe seizures. When her disease quickly spreads, and researchers frantically search for the cause, Beth’s husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is quarantined before it is determined that he is inexplicably immune. Soon the death toll multiplies at an historic rate, and as city services fail and communities become lawless, Mitch struggles to protect his teenage daughter. He is the everyman through whose eyes we see how thin the veil of civility really is.
Kate Winslet plays a doctor assigned to track the U.S. outbreak, at the risk of contracting the disease herself. She must also fight reluctant city officials who still remember the anti-climactic N1H1 episode. As with all the film’s actors, Winslet plays second fiddle to the disease itself with its seeming ability to kill most every test animal infected. However, Paltrow’s brief but brilliant performance singly stands above the rest. As flashbacks to her Hong Kong visit are contrasted with the final moments of her life we see the depth of this Oscar-winning talent.
Jude Law, as an investigative blogger who believes the government is withholding the facts, and even a vaccine for the disease, genially plays the public’s skeptical conscience and adds an element of both insanity and judiciousness. As with everyone else in this star-laden cast, however, Law’s character is neither heroic nor evil. Soderbergh appears to see them all as surprise witnesses to a worldwide disaster. But save for a few touching moments with Damon and his family, there’s a dearth of soul in Contagion. Not that the film doesn’t try, as for instance with Marion Cotillard’s portrayal of the doctor sent to Hong Kong to discover the disease’s origin. Her emotionless role changes little, even in one of the more climactic moments of the film. Most of the other performances are just as droll and contribute to a conclusion where ends remain loose and scattered.
Still, Soderbergh the cinematographer deliciously captures the horrific beginnings of the pandemic with an innate sense of when to refrain from going too far. As far as fear goes, he travels just enough.