Your mom may have told you a million times when you were growing up: “Wash your hands.” When you were young, you might have grudgingly found such a task a major pain, but as a grown-up it makes a great deal of sense to do it in order to prevent, as best as one can, the spread of germs and illnesses. The sound of a rough cough at the opening of director Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion suggests that very likely someone had contracted a pretty bad illness from another. What follows is a realistic, first-rate, “disaster” thriller that trails the lives of several characters and the aftereffects of a deadly, worldwide virus that seemingly knows no bounds.
The film opens with the introduction of a wife and mother named Beth (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), who clearly appears to be not herself and is enduring a fairly rough illness. She travels back home to Minnesota after a business trip to Hong Kong. In no time, she collapses in the kitchen in front of her husband Mitch (played by Matt Damon). Immediately taken to the hospital, Beth dies from her illness and in less than a day’s time, her young son Clark falls ill and dies as well. The look of terror on Beth’s face in the hospital before her death, as well as the look on Clark’s face when he’s discovered dead on his bed could be pulled right out of a horror movie, for which Contagion quickly becomes. The film runs with the horror of the notion of a virus so fatal it can spread like wildfire simply through the most basic of human movements and interactions. From touching a bowl of peanuts in a bar, to handing one’s credit card to a cashier, to simply returning home to your family after a trip, Soderbergh all too well shows us that an outbreak of sickness and death can come from the most innocent-seeming of actions that most people really wouldn’t think twice about.
In Hong Kong, we see a young man fall to the same grueling symptoms that plagued Beth and die just as quickly from it. We cut away to London and a woman there appears ill and dies in the same manner, and then a man travelling back home to Japan soon collapses and dies as well. It becomes obvious that a deadly epidemic is spreading worldwide. Enter in experts from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization to investigate and coordinate the outbreak. We are introduced to Dr. Ellis Cheever (played by Laurence Fishburne) of the CDC in Atlanta who is responsible for dealing with response and information, and Dr. Erin Mears (played by Kate Winslet) of the Epidemic Intelligence Service, who goes to Minnesota to try and track the spread of the virus there that killed Beth and her son. We also meet Dr. Leonora Orantes (played by Marion Cotillard), an investigator from the World Health Organization in Geneva who eventually travels to Hong Kong to look into the epidemic there. Also, we meet a medical researcher named Dr. Ally Hextall (played by Jennifer Ehle), who is determined to produce a vaccine for the virus; and a blogger/activist named Alan Krumwiede (played by Jude Law), who aggressively investigates and voices conspiracy theories on the epidemic and the idea of a government cover-up.
Soderbergh weaves together an absorbing, dead-serious, Babel-esque medical thriller with a major who’s who of talented actors in a film that quickly works on the audience’s fear of the idea of a lethal airborne outbreak and the mass loss of innocent lives that would result from it. We see not only the horror of a sight of piles of dead bodies, but the aftermath of living in a chaotic world in which one can’t help but be afraid to trust the very presence of another human being and how, in times of such great fear, people look out for themselves and what they have to do to ensure their own survival. Overall, Contagion is an effective thriller—one that likely will have you rush to your supply closet afterward to ensure you have enough anti-bacterial soap in stock.
4 out of 5 stars