★ ★ ★ ★
Rated PG13/106 min
The monster virus that attacks its hosts in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is a fast, nasty, invisible killer and we witness all too clearly what it can do to the human body. A stunned husband (Matt Damon) watches his infected wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) suffer a massive headache, followed by a violent seizure and a painful, shuddering death. Over the course of a few days, it spreads everywhere, with the only survivors on total house arrest while the rest of the population madly loots and riots. Even in-the-know scientists and powerful bureaucrats (embodied by Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburne) are held back by vaccine hold-ups and are horrified by the virus’ speed and accrued body count.
The only way to feel comfortable while watching Contagion is by going to the movie theater dressed in a HAZMAT suit. This globe-trotting, large scale horror show is the first big budget viral attack thriller since Outbreak and ably taps into every paranoid fear you have regarding deadly airborne cooties.
One of the most uncomfortable experiences of my movie-going life was when I caught Outbreak roughly 15 years ago at the Kaahumanu Theater. There’s an unforgettable, audacious sequence in that film where someone coughs in a movie theater and, aided by some simple f/x, we see the airborne virus float through the theater and latch onto another doomed victim.
Nothing in Contagion is equally outrageous and the film isn’t as good as the far more formulaic but scarier Outbreak. Yet, I confess that many of the audience members attending the packed Contagion screening were coughing throughout, which made me clam up into the fetal position. This movie will crawl under your skin (not literally, thankfully) and give audiences some serious chicken skin.
The screenplay is full of good dialogue and juicy scenes for its large cast, but there are also far too many characters and at least one unnecessary subplot, involving a kidnapping, that goes nowhere. There’s also a character that is seemingly set up to be Winslet’s nemesis but just vanishes from the film, either a case of lazy screenwriting or brutal editing. The tension isn’t fully sustained until the very end, but the best scenes are the stuff of nightmares.
The all-star cast seems to be a nod to the star-studded Irwin Allen disaster films of the 1970’s. Only Elliot Gould feels jarringly out of place. Damon has a tough role and makes his everyman recognizable, Fishburne and John Hawkes are dependably great and Winslet registers strongly as well. Best of all is Jude Law–terrific and fired up as a controversial, online reporter who fearlessly covers the worldwide devastation.
The sight of Law, wearing a protective bubble suit, casually walking through an empty San Francisco, is one of my favorite movie moments of the year. Much of the cast is either not wearing make-up or filmed in an unflattering light, an effective way to make even the glamorous Winslet appear less a movie star.
After a few hit and miss art films, Soderbergh has made his first big studio movie since Ocean’s Thirteen and his sharp, intelligent and stylish eye makes this feel queasily believable. This is a highly effective thriller, so be warned: you’ll be thinking about who breathed on your popcorn and will wash your hands as soon as the end credits roll. The final scene (like much of the movie overall) is guaranteed to leave audiences walking away feeling totally uneasy.