A different kind of alien invasion
Quietly and with chilling precision, Director Steven Soderbergh examines a global pandemic that arises from the confluence of unfortunate coincidences.
We meet Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), after she returns to the States from Hong Kong and begins to exhibit flu-like symptoms. Initially, neither Beth nor her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), are overly concerned, but within days it becomes clear she’s contracted a deadly disease.
Her death completes the setup, allowing the film to follow health officials as they try to contain the disease while tracing its origins. The process begins with tracking down everyone having contact with Beth during her final days. In addition to tracing a planeload of passengers, they question Beth’s friends and co-workers, who are in turn, fearful for their own lives. Halfway around the world, and everywhere in between, a loosely knit web of health officials alternately cooperate and accuse.
At approximately 20 minute intervals, the film revisits Beth’s tale, bringing us closer and closer to the virus’s point of origin as her story works its way back in time.
Here in the States, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), head of the Centers for Disease Control, shares increasingly grim news with government agencies. The math predicting the spread of the virus is sobering. One official wonders whether the outbreak has resulted from weaponizing the disease. Cheever answers, “No need. The birds weaponized it.”
After losing both his wife and young son to the mysterious illness, Mitch is left with a teen daughter to protect. In an attempt to avoid the escalating numbers of infected, the pair live like hermits while stores are looted and homes are ransacked. Stadiums are repurposed into makeshift hospitals. Still wracked with grief, Mitch carefully watches each development. He fortifies their home, then escapes to the bedroom closet for an anguished cry.
Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard portray unsung heroes fanning out across the globe. Researchers, played by Jennifer Ehle and Elliott Gould, grapple with mapping the disease organism’s DNA – a necessary first step toward creating a vaccine.
Soderbergh refuses to sensationalize the near-collapse of society, and he resists sentimentalizing those who put their lives on the line to save it. Like a Mega episode of CSI, we stay close to the scientists, glimpsing their personal lives and understanding when they ignore protocol in an effort to save those near and dear to them.
The confusion among ordinary citizens is worsened by outlaw blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), whose website grows in popularity as he claims to have discovered a home remedy for curing the virus.
The film works as a thoughtful treatise, but it qualifies as entertainment by adhering to the rules that inform disaster flicks.
The main difference, for those who care about such things, is that while “2012” is utterly improbable, “Contagion” is extremely plausible.