Between SARS, Avian Flu, Mad Cow, and a handful of other recent outbreak panics, it’s fair to say that the fear of a devastating pandemic is running high. Of course, the failure of any of those panics to bring huge body counts probably means that our level of attention to other diseases is on the wane.
There’s a lot to like about Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, from the impressive scale to the fantastic cast, it’s an incredibly interesting bird’s eye view of a deadly pandemic. But with that immense sense of scale, the film also sacrifices the human element that would help ground the story. There are pieces of it here, especially in the story of Mitch (Matt Damon), who struggles with a horrific loss, the breakdown of society, and a rapidly maturing daughter. Damon’s scenes give Contagion the gravitas such a story demands, unfortunately, there just don’t seem to be a enough of them in this massive, sprawling film.
The film begins with Damon’s wife, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, returning from a business trip in Hong Kong. Her health rapidly deteriorates, and she’s dead in the hospital in no time. But this isn’t the last we see of the character. One of the other strengths of Contagion is how it tracks this character to try to determine the source of the outbreak, sprinkling in little bits of information here and there, and from the perspectives of the film’s many, many characters.
The film primarily tracks the efforts of various people as they try to understand, track, and ultimately contain the outbreak. While these make for pretty interesting viewing, they also tend to be a little dry at times.
Another subplot centers around a character (Jude Law) who is peddling his own brand of cure for the disease, while also opening denouncing government efforts and inciting panic as he goes. This was a potentially interesting story that sadly got lost amid all the various characters and plots in the film. I always like seeing plots about the people who profit off horrible circumstances, how they sell it to the public, how they justify it to themselves, and how things end up shaking out. It’s a shame this didn’t have more time to play out.
Contagion was a decent to good film that, with a lot more focus, could have been both deeply affecting and deeply unsettling. I walked away from the film more disappointed at the wasted potential than anything else.