Matt Damon stars as Mitch Emhoff, a suburban everyman waiting for his wife to return from a business trip to the Far East. She arrives with a cold that blossoms into a serious illness that kills her and their son only a few days later. Damon is a movie star but he is also a consummate professional, committing fully to his role, never letting his persona get in the way of good storytelling. A subplot involving his daughter and her boyfriend and the necessary gap between them as the virus spreads, has a TV-drama cheese factor that undermines this storyline’s more effective elements.
CDC official Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) supervises prevention efforts, coordinating with the World Health Organization (WHO) as the outbreak proliferates on a global scale. Fishburne’s is a technical role functioning mainly as an expository device until Cheever procures two trial vaccines which he shares with his loved ones. Meant to comment on how the rich and powerful get better treatment, it is an idea Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns touch on but never fully explore.
Kate Winslet plays Erin Mears, a novice CDC official tracking the virus through America’s heartland, bravely soldiering on in the face of almost certain death. Across the world, Marion Cotillard plays Leonora Orantes, a WHO official searching for the virus’ origins in South China. Her storyline is among the movie’s weakest as she implausibly finds herself captive in a rural village there.
Playing the wild card is Jude Law as Alan Krumwiede, a blogger whose hits skyrocket as he theorizes about the origins of the virus and a secret cure. This storyline is glaringly the movie’s weakest with Law turning in a rudderless performance, struggling with a sketched in character and foggy motivations.
No one ever called Steven Soderbergh a director of dumb movies, and that holds true with “Contagion.” The facts come fast and furious and it appears to be authentic and well researched. Soderbergh excels when there is a procedure to be dissected but not so much when confronted with human emotion. As smart as he is, the director has always been a maker of passionless movies, frequently struggling with the human element as he did in “The Good German,” a romance that burned with the heat of a thousand moons.
Usually with a disaster movie like “Contagion,” the event serves as a backdrop with human drama and themes taking center stage. Perhaps Soderbergh senses his shortcomings as he made the unusual choice of placing the outbreak and the race for a cure front and center in, superficially examining characters and ideas as an afterthought.
As with most of his films, “Contagion” is technically superb — the multiple storylines are easy to keep straight, exposition is clear and concise without gumming up the pacing, dynamic shot selection and rapid editing move the action and effortlessly interweave the narratives. Unfortunately, all of this expertise adds up to nothing more than a mildly-engaging thriller.
*** (out of four)