‘Contagion’ movie review: virus pandemic thriller from Steven Soderbergh

In Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh approaches the spread of a biological virus with the same fervor he brought to the drug trade in Traffic ten years earlier. The resulting film, from a script by Scott Z. Burns (who made the underrated and not dissimilar Pu-239), is chaotic but tightly-paced, highly relevant, and downright terrifying.

Gwyneth Paltrow plays Beth Emhoff, patient zero (for the US, at least), a businesswoman who returns to Minneapolis from a trip to Hong Kong (after an extended layover in Chicago) carrying something far more dangerous than what TSA screens for. 

Soon, a deadly airborne virus is spreading throughout the central US states. Matt Damon is Beth’s husband Mitch, apparently immune to the virus, watching his family suddenly crumble around him.

Agents for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including doctors Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) are quickly alerted to the outbreak. Overseas, the World Health Organization and Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) begin to investigate the origins of the virus in Hong Kong. 

Meanwhile, skeptical San Francisco blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is spreading fear and distrust of government organizations.

In a mere 105 minutes, we’re treated to a dizzying number of plotlines and characters as the virus spreads globally, authorities investigate, media reports, and the public panics. Soderbergh takes an almost clinical view of the situation and (for the most part) allows the events unfold in realistic fashion.

There’s no time to establish specific characterizations here (nor, really, is that the point), so Soderbergh has cast well-known actors in most of the key roles. Unconsciously, our minds fill in the blanks: we might already know these characters, based on the actors that are playing them. 

This works wonderfully, and helps to ground the film; in addition to those mentioned above, Elliot Gould, John Hawkes, Jennifer Ehle, Bryan Cranston, and others all provide solid support with little screen time.

Two of the storylines don’t quite feel right. In Hong Kong, Cotillard’s Orantes is sidetracked during her investigation, then used as a political pawn; her story feels out of place considering the events in the rest of the world. 

Meanwhile, there’s an amount of ambiguity surrounding Law’s blogger, who is ultimately portrayed as disingenuous. But a more relevant target for investigation might have been major media, who were quick to work up a storm during the bird flu and pig flu “epidemics” in recent years. How might they have reacted here?

On the whole, however, Contagion is startlingly effective, with the director contributing the stark, cold cinematography. Cliff Martinez (who also did some great work on the Drive soundtrack) provides an excellent zombie-industrial original score.

By taking the scientific and (seemingly) realistic approach, Soderbergh is able to craft something far more frightening than more sensationalistic films like Outbreak. Germaphobes take note: just in time for Halloween, Contagion is one of the scariest films of 2011.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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