I guess it never hurts to be reminded to cover your mouth when you cough, but Steven Soderbergh’s plague-thriller Contagion should have been so much more than a star-filled health warning.
The film, about a hybrid germ that sweeps the world at the speed of a viral video, offers big names and an astonishing array of acting choices in the “How should I do this cough?” department. But it also has a script so banal it’s better suited to some cheapo cable disaster movie. Even Soderbergh can’t overcome that.
He tries everything he can, though, and the failure is especially disappointing because Contagion has such a killer – in every sense of the word – beginning. Over a black screen we hear a couple of coughs. They’re small at first, but chillingly ominous because, after all, we know what this movie’s about.
The voice is Gwyneth Paltrow’s as Beth, an executive waiting at O’Hare airport en route back to Minneapolis from Hong Kong. Her quick stop in Chicago included a visit to an old boyfriend, a secret she obviously wants to keep from her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon). Soon she’s feeling worse than flu-y, so is her small son, and so is much of Chicago. Dramatically, it’s “Hear Gwyneth cough” and “Hear Matt not cough” because his character is mysteriously immune.
The early scenes bring to mind Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter as it leapfrogs around cities. People are sweating, coughing and collapsing in crowded subways in Hong Kong and London. Kate Winslet, as an investigator for the CDC, is called to Atlanta by her boss, Laurence Fishburne. Jude Law plays a blogger in San Francisco, convinced the government and big drug companies are covering up knowledge of a homeopathic cure.
All this jumping about explains how Soderbergh got such a starry cast together – no one had to work very long. And they deliver the most convincing portrayals they can, considering they have only cliches to work with.
Winslet is saddled with a lot of expository dialogue about the spreading disease and still manages to make us see a caring woman. Law is given very bad teeth (on-screen bloggers; never glamorous) and a belligerent attitude, but conveys his character’s wiliness. Damon holds the film together, a solid presence as a middle-class Dad trying to cope.
But as the deadly contagion spreads and the film jumps from victims to doctors to looters desperately storming a pharmacy, the movie is both too familiar and not scary enough. It feels kind of lazy. We’ve seen every scene before, from the street memorials of candles and flowers, to the gym turned into an ad hoc hospital with rows of cots, to the infighting among bureaucrats. And it’s not as if we have real characters to hang onto, so the fears never become visceral.
Soderbergh is always intriguing even when he’s just being eccentric. And when he does go mainstream, it’s often with homage, as in the Oceans movies, or a sly twist, as in the satirical The Informant!, with Damon as a comically self-important corporate whistleblower. Ah The Informant! - there is the source of another Contagion disappointment. Both were written by Scott Z. Burns, and it’s dizzying that he could have gone from the originality of that earlier film to such triteness here. When Fishburne’s character asks the lab scientist played by Jennifer Ehle when they’ll get some test results, she says, “I’ll ask the monkeys.” Really.
The best plague movies – Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is one -- scare you silly while latching onto whatever fear du jour fear is wafting through the zeitgeist. 28 Days Later had SARS piled onto AIDS; lucky film. Contagion arrives at a moment when the dread of economic calamity and weather apocalypse scarcely leave time to worry about mutating viruses.
You could do much worse than watching stars at their best in a splashy commercial Soderbergh film, of course. Contagion isn’t dreadful. But it’s a major letdown when taken at the level of its own ambition - at the very least, to makes us terrified of stepping into the germy subway or food court after leaving the movie.