Review: Contagion (2011)

03 Nov

With Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns have crafted a viral outbreak movie that differs from the norm. This one has a very realistic feel to it as it examines the way a fatal pandemic begins, how it spreads, who tries to stop it and how. We also get a look at the effect it has on people, as well as that of the efforts to contain it. The film has similarities in its matter-of-fact tone and multi-character structure to Soderbergh’s 2000 drug trade film Traffic, but Contagion places less focus on the characters and more on the core subject. The virus is always the center of attention.

It comes from Chicago. Or Hong Kong. Or somewhere else. Nobody knows at first. What’s initially thought of as just a fluke occurrence or two soon manifests itself as a highly contagious disease. People who contract it get a nasty cough and might die within a day or two. The mortality rate is estimated at one in four, but that might be incorrect. Through carefully zoomed-in shots, we become aware of the way it spreads before the characters explain it explicitly. A handshake. There’s the virus. A credit card being handed to a cashier. The virus is there too. And in a world where jet planes fly halfway across the planet in a day, we know contagions spread easily.

As said, there are plenty of characters in this movie. Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the first one we see as she sits in a hotel lobby coughing. She might well be Patient Zero. Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spearheads the work to contain the virus. He might find himself biting off more than he can chew. Working with him is the driven Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) who’s sent to Minnesota to investigate one cluster of the disease. Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of the World Health Organization, meanwhile, is sent to Hong Kong for similar reasons. Scientists, most notably Sussman and Hextall (Elliott Gould and Jennifer Ehle) work tirelessly to come up with a vaccine. Inserting himself into the mix is freelance journalist Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), spreading conspiracy theories and sowing dissent online. There are reasons for his actions. While all this is going on, family man Mitch (Soderbergh-veteran Matt Damon) loses his wife and one of his children to the virus but is given little time to grief as his older daughter (Anna-Jacoby Heron) still needs to be kept safe from the contagion. Mitch himself appears to be immune, but others in the cast will contract the virus.

The realistic tone of Contagion occasionally reminded me of Paul Greengrass‘ 9/11 drama United 93. Particularly in the early goings where nobody is really sure what’s going on, the same sense of helpless dread is present, if not to the same degree of effectiveness (the first act of Contagion moves a bit slow and is bogged down somewhat by technical jargon). But once the ball really gets rolling, the film’s strive for realism becomes it’s greatest asset. Why? Because it’s different and fresh. There’s no immediate breakdown of human civilization, no sensational miracles and no evil army sent out to reinforce quarantines by any means necessary. The aim is to paint a picture of what a large-scale outbreak could be like if it happened in real life, and the film certainly feels believable.

The movie jumps back and forth between all its characters and their story arcs (which rarely intersect directly). At times the film gets too crowded, leaving some people on the sideline for a bit too long. Most egregious is the case of Cotillard’s character, who very much disappears during the film’s second half and had me going “Huh? Oh, right, she’s still here” when she suddenly popped up again. Her story could have used another scene or two both to keep it in the viewers’ mind and to flesh it out more. It’s easy enough to infer what happens as it is, but the emotional weight is diminished when we don’t get to see it. But in a way, this works to hammer home the point that the film is about the virus, not the people. All story threads are resolved in the end, but the aftermath for many characters is left ambiguous.

While Contagion isn’t a perfect film, the good far outweighs the bad. It engagingly shows many different aspects of the outbreak in its effect in personal (Mitch and Beth), professional (the doctors) and social (Alan) spheres. The actors all deliver good to great performances, with Winslet and Law leaving the strongest impressions on me. It’s shot beautifully and has an oddly fitting score. Is it Soderbergh’s best film ever? No, but it puts in a very admirable effort. It’s more ambitious than your standard Hollywood flick (the star-studded cast and the marketing gives off that vibe) and its stark tone which might turn some people off. For those willing to immerse themselves in its narrative, a feast is waiting.

Score: 4/5


Posted by on 3 November, 2011 in Reviews


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7 responses to “Review: Contagion (2011)

  1. Movies - Noir

    3 November, 2011 at 23:53

    Nice review and I agree with most of what you have to say. There are some things that stand out in this movie in my opinion. The first third of the movie is good, energetic and makes me interested from the get go. The music is, as you said, very fitting and I like it very much. All actors do their part and most of them are used well. I agree with you that Cotillard isn’t used enough and her story is in my opinion weak. I also don’t like Jude Law’s character, he annoys me, haha. I also think the movie doesn’t have a very powerful ending which such a movie is worthy of.

    Those are just some of the points I can think of, I wrote more in my own review for those interested (see below). I gave it a modest 3/5, but I agree it’s better than the standard mainstream Hollywood-product one might expect. I also agree there are similarities to Traffic (his best movie to date).

    Here’s what I wrote about Contagion.

    • Emil

      4 November, 2011 at 00:07

      Thank you, MN! Always nice to hear what you have to say.

      Jude Law’s character (or, rather, his story) was one of my favorite parts of the film. It helped nail down one of the film’s taglines: “Nothing spreads like fear”. It shows the role online interactions will have in the event of an outbreak, which makes for an interesting contrast: when people are advised to avoid physical contact, communicating online will be more important to us. Many movies are like what Alan says, where the government and organizations conspire and keep things hidden from the public. And yet here’s the opposite: it’s the man who claims to reveal the truth that might end up causing more harm than good. Alan might not be likeable, but he’s a crucial part of the film for me since he’s the only character to provide this angle. Remove him and the film loses this unique viewpoint.

      I can’t say I agree about the ending either. Once I got into the groove and atmosphere the film presented, I figured it would end in the manner it did: not with a bang but with a smooth gradual release. It felt appropriate.

  2. Movies - Noir

    4 November, 2011 at 00:37

    Always nice to discuss movies with you, Emil ;)

    The thing is, I probably dislike the character Jude Law plays because I dislike those kind of people in real life, the ones that get away with things like he does because he’s a pain in the @ss ;) But I fully agree that he’s an important character and gives the story something different, and something that is very important in today’s world – the internet and the media.

    Personally I like the 70’s (in movies) when the government DID get away with it which gave the movies in those days that feeling of paranoia and conspiracy that today’s movies lack. But the whole world was different in those days.

    And about the ending, I guess that because the movie got off to such a fast start, I kind of felt it went the other way from there and even though I don’t have anything against that, the ending (and most of the second half of the movie) didn’t live up to the very exciting first third. But that’s just my opinion of course.

    • Emil

      4 November, 2011 at 01:05

      It’s weird how we have so different views on the first act of the film. I felt it was a bit slow and took its sweet time to really seize my interest.

      (SPOILER AHEAD for those who haven’t seen the film!)

      Not sure if you were referring to Alan specifically with “the ones that get away with things he does”, but there’s nothing in the film that say that Alan gets away with anything. Sure, bail was posted for him so he doesn’t have to remain in custody, but that doesn’t mean he’s free of charges. He’ll still be heading for trial and could very well end up in prison.

      • Movies - Noir

        4 November, 2011 at 01:48

        Haha, yes it seems that way. Maybe that’s because the movie starts off right away, without any credits or build up. We jump right into it and the virus has already started to spread. That’s what I liked about it, but after that the movie focuses a bit too much on the vaccin as I see it.


        Hmm, regarding Alan, I meant that had this been in the 70’s, they’d shut him up before he became a problem ;) I like it when the “big man” wins and the conspiracy is kept a secret (even though this wasn’t really a conspiracy movie, but you get my point). To me, he (the character) was also kind of irritating which didn’t help me liking him any more.

  3. Jessica

    7 November, 2011 at 12:13

    It’s definitely believable – they put a lot of effort into getting the science right as it appears to me – but not altogether engaging I’m afraid. Too many subplots and not enough of emotional investment to any of them. This said: I enjoyed it well enuogh and it got a 4/5 rating from me as well.

    • Emil

      7 November, 2011 at 14:46

      Yeah, I read some interviews with real scientists and researchers where they praised how accurate the film was in the details. So it sounds like it’s a job well done.


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