Contagion opens with Gwyneth Paltrow coughing into her cell phone at a Chicago airport, with the title "Day 2" ominously burned into the frame. Two days later – and just a few minutes into the movie – her character is dead, as is her six year old son. Thus begins the fast-paced tale of a fast-paced fatal virus, and the many people affected by it.
Representing the average citizenry is Matt Damon, playing Paltrow's husband, seemingly immune to the disease and set on protecting his daughter from both infection and the anarchy that will invade their Minnesota community once the virus becomes an epidemic. Much of the rest of the all-star cast play members of the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, frantically trying to track the source of the outbreak and thus prevent more deaths. (One notable exception is Jude Law, as an arrogant San Francisco blogger convinced that he has discovered a homeopathic cure.)
Soderbergh makes a canny move in killing off Paltrow so early on: with an A-list Oscar winner dropping dead so gracelessly in the opening minutes, there's no guarantee that any character will survive the outbreak, no matter how famous the actor portraying him or her. That should keep us on edge, but it strangely doesn't – even after another key player does succumb to the virus.
Much of Contagion's initial power stems from our natural panicked reaction to the idea of a disease that can kill any one of us in less than a week. It's a terrifying concept, but just when the story should start making us feel hysterical and hopeless, it unwittingly takes a gentler path. Without giving too much away, I'll just say that a tone settles in that suggests that everything's going to be okay, and that the world's not going to end in this movie. It deflates the film's horrors significantly, turning its human casualties into dismissible statistics.
It's clear that Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who also wrote the director's The Informant!) are dedicated to an objective, fact-based approach to their story. But although they manage to pack every detail of their disaster scenario into 106 brisk minutes, the film loses something in the process. Call it a lack of emotional manipulation, if you will.
I have this problem with many of Soderbergh's films: I think he's a gifted but cerebral director; his work is intellectually solid, but rarely gripping on a gut level. I was hoping Contagion would fill me with paranoia, outrage, or sadness. But in its carefulness to avoid melodrama, it becomes a dry exercise. And despite it being filmed across the world and featuring a cast of thousands, it doesn't quite nail that epic sweep.
I must emphasize that this is not at all a bad film. The cast is mostly excellent (though the teenager who plays Damon's daughter overacts a bit), Cliff Martinez contributes a crackling electronic score, and Stephen Mirrione's editing is a genuine triumph. Contagion is never less than interesting. I just wish it was more than interesting.