By Maggie Doherty
There are so many Hollywood darlings in Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion" I was half expecting all the story lines to neatly tie in together in the end. But it isn't that kind of feel-good movie. Rather, it's a serious dose of "I don't feel so good." And for those who catch the fictitious virus, the story's bad guy, there's a one in four chance they make it out alive.
"Contagion" is an incredibly honest look at the vulnerable human reaction to something as crippling and unpredictable as a massive pandemic. Appropriately released on the anniversary weekend of 9/11, the movie serves as a realistic reminder that the scariest form of mass casualty may come from not our foes, but of entirely possible natural causes.
Because there are so many recognizable faces in the cast, Soderbergh needs not waste time developing characters and melodrama. Immediately, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) a Minneapolis native suffers a brisk, ugly death from a sickness she contracted on a business trip in China. A montage of similar carnage follows, showing the unfortunate folks who came in contact with her scattered across the map (Hong Kong, London) to give us an idea of the magnitude of this mysterious new bug. Matt Damon plays Mitch, her baffled widower, who also loses his stepson to the virus but is immune himself. That leaves his daughter from another marriage, Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron), who becomes perhaps the only source of sentiment in the movie, with half a shot at immunity. But Mitch is not taking any chances.
This is all within the first five minutes, as "Contagion" moves with lightning speed across the globe, much like its antagonist. Right after we witness Paltrow's head being sawed open during her autopsy, we meet Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishbourne), president of the CDC and the center of all media attention. His loyal and diligent protégée, field agent Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), works stoically, but at no match to the virus. She knows the facts: how many it's predicted to kill, the incubation period, the chances of survival; so what happens when you start feeling the symptoms yourself? Winslet shows us flawlessly.
Jude Law's cheeky Alam Krumweide represents the Internet's fickle reliability during disastrous times. The self-titled blogger/journalist preaches against Cheever and the CDC, claiming big government is in bed with the pharmaceutical companies and denying regular citizens an antidote. His actions fuel chaos and public mobs, as order becomes obsolete in a global crisis. We root for him as a middle class champion, yet his intentions become questionable towards the end. He's neither villain nor hero; just another chess piece. Soderbergh insists that it doesn't matter in the battle against science.
Marion Cotillard has a touching moment as a scientist for the World Health Organization in a sub plot that takes place in Hong Kong. She's mostly extra talent to package the movie, as she's never had an unlikeable role yet. She and Elliot Gould's frustrated doctor seeking a cure get far too little to do, although what they do doesn't disappoint.
Meanwhile, Jory's painful inability to spend quality time with her boyfriend makes for a stark contrast to the mass graves and shortage of body bags. We end up feeling for her more so than the departed, since she's the one doomed to a life bereft of normal human contact. She and Damon have perfect chemistry as the awkward father daughter duo, with a subtle let's-get-out-of-this-mess-together charm. Their predicament highlights the grim subtlety that the rest of the cast must capture to pull off Soderbergh's concept.
As if the eight Oscar-nominated actors weren't enough for this stacked cast, Meryl Streep's younger doppelganger, Jennifer Ehle, plays a brilliant, selfless lab specialist who dons the obligatory disease-proof, bubble boy-esque uniform to contrive a vaccine. She does so with the utmost dignity, much like Winslet's Mears soldiers on through the sea of sickness. What's the moral of the story? Stay calm, hold on to your dignity, and beware of the bowl of peanuts at the bar.