(Steven Soderbergh, 2011, USA)
One of the few remaining films of Steven Soderbergh’s directorial career before his apparent resignation, Contagion sees his wondering cinematic eye fixating on yet another genre, some semblance of the disaster film, whilst incorporating an enviable cast of contemporary Hollywood’s who’s who. For anyone who has seen the trailer, it is no spoiler to reveal that the film starts with the death of Gwyneth Paltrow, who, after a visit to Honk Kong, rapidly succumbs to an infectious virus that spreads globally shortly after. A pandemic ensues, and without an available vaccine, let alone an idea of what the disease actually is, hysteria breaks out amongst a population desperate to stay alive and politicians anxious to keep things under wraps.
Evoking previous works, chiefly the sterile ensemble piece that was Traffic (2000) and his crowded Oceans franchise, Soderbergh impressively casts a wealth of dependable talent, but what he doesn’t seem to understand is that, with films of this magnitude, the less thinly spread characters you have, the more engaging the story actually is. Big name actors ranging from the likes of Kate Winslet, Matt Damon and Marion Cotillard, to Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston all make snappy appearances but are given relatively short shrift and make little to no impression (not to mention Cotillard disappearing for a hefty amount of screen time), and given that the subsequent death count is relentlessly high, the plethora of sketchy, underwritten characters are difficult to warm to. Particularly Jude Law’s dreadful cockney Australian blogger, Alan Krumweide. Damon’s immediately single father attempting to bond with his adolescent daughter is also needlessly tacked on and laughably saccharine.
For the most part, Contagion’s narrative taps into an inherently nail-biting fear; the fear of mass panic in the face of personal wellbeing, and Soderbergh captures this sudden rupture with chilly ease, but with a distracted, tedious plot and flat excuses for dramatic tension, this feels more like a feeble antiseptic than a fully-fledged epidemic.