In Contagion, Steven Soderbergh gets brusquely to the point: the sound of a cough before there’s even an image, then the sight of poor, doomed Gwyneth Paltrow — Patient Zero — showing signs (red eyes, dark circles, phlegm) of the virus that will quickly finish her off. An onscreen title reads, “Day 2,” which is a good, sick joke announcing there’ll be none of the clunky expository foreplay you’d get in something by Roland Emmerich, who has a gift for juxtaposing two-bit soap-opera mawkishness and million-dollar CGI. Soderbergh is the anti-Emmerich: He won’t even let Gwynny show off her long stems. Contagion, which was written by Scott Z. Burns, bumps along as if it had been pared down from an eight-hour mini-series to a lean, unusually mean 90 minutes. There are fast montages of contact: people in airports brushing past, coughing on, or handing money (another kind of virus) to one another, Hong Kong infecting Chicago infecting Tokyo in seconds. New settings are introduced with the name of the city and the number of residents — i.e., the number of corpses that might soon line the streets, the candidates for contagion.
Contagion is compelling. The stars onboard might not get room to do much acting, but you’ll feel a surge of confidence when broad-shouldered Laurence Fishburne strides into the Center for Disease Control, epidemiologist Marion Cotillard moves purposefully through a Swiss airport, Kate Winslet grits her teeth and gets busy setting up quarantine shelters, Bryan Cranston sifts through evidence for signs of a national security breach, Elliot Gould attempts to grow the all-devouring virus in situ so that a vaccine — well, Elliot Gould wouldn’t be my first choice to play one of the world’s leading virologists. But he’s terrific! All the stars set their star egos aside and do yeoman service. And amid all the dry, no-nonsense data exchanges, there’s a line worthy of the disaster-movie pantheon: “Somewhere in the world the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat.” Which explains the Kardashians, but seriously, folks …
Like much of Soderbergh’s recent work, Contagion feels a little sterile, more like a cinematic exercise than something with blood pumping through it. It’s certainly high-minded — it might be the most high-minded disaster movie ever made. The virus is both literal and metaphorical. Soderbergh uses genre conventions to portray a world at once too distant (human relations have broken down, money sullies all) and too catastrophically close. Paltrow, you see, picked up the virus in Hong Kong working for a sinister-sounding international conglomerate, and she spread it to Chicago by cheating on dog-loyal hubby Matt Damon. (Globalization destroys families, cultures, internal organs.) The Third World poor — being closely bunched together and last in line for vaccinations — die faster and in greater numbers. And we’d all be better off if we didn’t eat so much pork. But the real villain of Contagion isn’t a pig or bat. It’s a skuzzy, skulking, malcontent tech blogger (Jude Law) who’s contacted (the epidemiological meaning works here, too) by venture capitalists looking for ways to hit the motherlode while tens of millions perish. That accursed Internet!
Is there hope? Yes, but it rests with the heroically selfless individual. Gould’s scientist gets results — but only by violating national-security protocol. So does researcher Jennifer Ehle (in the movie’s best role), who’s driven to break the rules by a physician father who risked his life to treat the sick. Contagion is provocative, but it might have been unspeakably moving if Soderbergh thought less like a clinician — and a prig — and more like … well, Chekhov, the greatest of all doctor-dramatists, who could recognize the person along with the physiological (and cultural) symptoms. Yes, the bar is set high. But millions of people die in this film. Little kids suffer and perish onscreen. It’s no time for cold, clammy censure.