In the germophobe’s nightmare that is “Contagion,” Steven Soderbergh puts an Oscar-decorated cast through the wringer of a deadly outbreak. Think of it as “Stars With SARS” as Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne and Jude Law race to contain a nasty pandemic that picks off Gwyneth Paltrow in its opening minutes. Still, without fully rounded characters, it’s hard to care who lives or dies in what amounts to an extended procedural on how disease prevention orgs might respond to such a scenario. Such disappointments aside, a shrewd campaign misrepresenting “Contagion” as a white-knuckle chiller should ensure healthy returns.
Those hoping for a traditional horror movie — the sort that inspires nervous dates to reach for their partners’ arms during the scary bits — are in for a rude awakening, as “Contagion” will leave auds thinking twice about where they put their hands. Same goes for that symphony of coughing that invariably accompanies any public screening experience: Once an annoyance, the unwelcome noise takes on a threatening edge in this context — a reminder of the scene in 1995’s Ebola-inspired film “Outbreak,” in which someone sneezes in a movie theater and the camera follows the swarm of germs around the darkened room.
The film opens on a bowl of peanuts at an airport bar. Enter Paltrow’s hand. Already highly contagious, she’s Patient Zero on Day Two of the outbreak. A globe-trotting businesswoman on her way home from Hong Kong, her character spreads the disease every time she touches something, and Soderbergh’s camera duly catalogs every possible opportunity for infection, from handshakes to credit-card transfers. The helmer sees endless skin-crawling potential in planes, trains and public buses, alternating between such viral superconductors for the first few minutes as a handful of complete strangers pass the bug.
Dubbed MEV-1, the virus will ultimately become the most fleshed-out player in “Contagion’s” sprawling ensemble. As head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) supplies a steady stream of alarmist one-liners. Representing the World Health Organization, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Cotillard) flies to China, where she’s promptly kidnapped and held with the vaccine as her ransom. Elliott Gould, Jennifer Ehle and Demetri Martin play lab scientists trying to find a cure, while Winslet’s no-nonsense Dr. Erin Mears operates on the front lines, attempting to quarantine the sick. All are vulnerable to infection.
Only Matt Damon, who plays Paltrow’s husband, Mitch Emhoff, is immune. After watching half his family drop dead, Mitch becomes that familiar angry-yet-sensible survivor type auds have seen in countless zombie movies. Legend he is not, however, as the pic reserves its moments of heroism for doctors who defy authority in reckless, unrealistic ways (like injecting themselves with a promising vaccine when time is too tight for test trials). As “Contagion” develops, human panic proves more infectious than the virus itself — an intriguing idea that’s increasingly hard to follow as the leaps in geography and time begin to blur.
Though Soderbergh seems to have spared no expense in assembling his cast (a “Talented Mr. Ripley” reunion of sorts) or incorporating such far-flung locations as Hong Kong, San Francisco and Casablanca, the film takes a decidedly anti-glamorous stance. With the exception of Cotillard, who looks lovely in her dead-end subplot, the actors range from haggard-looking to body bag-ready. As conspiracy-prone blogger Alan Krumwiede, Law gets off easy with an unsightly snaggletooth pasted to his veneers — not bad when you consider poor Paltrow, stuck on an autopsy slab as a cranial saw screeches offscreen.
Considering its international scope and multiculti ensemble, “Contagion” should have offered Soderbergh roughly the same potential as “Traffic.” Instead of serving up several dramatic storylines to seize our interest, however, Burns’ script has the bloodless, semi-detached quality of strict news reporting. Gone is the color and flavor the writer brought to “The Informant,” as well as the visual cues that kept the threads straight in “Traffic.”
Armed with Red’s new 5K Epic-X “Tattoo” cameras, Soderbergh squanders all that resolution on downright ugly footage that makes exceptional moments such as street riots and military roadblocks look as unremarkable as scenes set in conference rooms and bio-safety labs. The art of film lighting, already mostly lost in cinema’s transition from black-and-white to color, suffers a deathblow from digital cameras that can make do with available light. What energy “Contagion” can muster owes to Cliff Martinez’s electronic score; the rest is routine.
Soderbergh has often touted his admiration for “All the President’s Men,” with its lean just-the-facts plotting, and “Contagion” is the closest one of his films has come to that format. Still, his execution calls to mind Larry McMurtry’s critique of the Watergate thriller as “a picture full of doors,” in which, “The reporters knock on a lot of doors, but the doors only lead to their story, not the story.” Likewise, “Contagion” is all procedure, with circumstances forcing the characters to do most of their work in isolation or by cell phone. In contrast with the director’s other celeb-filled ensemble, “Ocean’s Eleven,” where chemistry was everything, these stars seldom share the screen.