“Contagion,” the film from director Steven Soderberg, immerses audiences into a realistic and quietly terrifying pandemic. It starts with a cough. I’m speaking about both the opening seconds of the movie before you even see anything on the screen and the actual symptoms people experience when they are infected with the virus in the film. Beth Emhoff is in a bar at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, waiting between a flight from Hong Kong and another one which will return her home to her husband and child. She’s speaking on the phone to her lover with whom she just had a rendezvous. She coughs. And so it begins.
Beth (portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow) is the first person we meet who has the disease. After she returns home from her business trip, she’s in her kitchen, disoriented; she falls to the floor and has a seizure. Her husband (Matt Damon) tries to help her as her son (Griffin Kane) looks on with fear. At the hospital, Beth dies. It was just that quick. She was healthy and full of life, and within a few days, her body succumbs to a virus which no one can explain. How did she contract the virus?
There are online reports. Other people around the world are dying from a mysterious disease. The Centers for Disease Control, governments and the media begin to take notice. They have no idea what they are dealing with, but the virus is spreading. Is it airborne? Is it spread by touch, from a door handle, an elevator button? The contagion multiplies quickly out in front of the experts. They desperately need to understand the virus so they can combat it. Meanwhile hundreds, thousands and more are dying.
“Contagion” is skillfully directed, beautifully filmed and well-written. Soderbergh who is also the film’s cinematographer took great care to compose the shots in the film. There are deftly executed camera sequences in motion, through glass windows or simply stationary in rooms as people talk. But the images on-screen are never stale. He also liberally plays with the film’s focus, giving things a very modern and stylish look. The movie’s color palette ranges from warm hues (hot, actually) when we flashback to Beth in Hong Kong, to grays and blues elsewhere, representing cold and fear. I recommend seeing the film on an IMAX screen if you can. In addition, the music by Cliff Martinez is amazing. It is reminiscent of the music in “The Social Network,” but it stands on its own. While much of the film is quiet with no score, the music is used to great effect to move the plot along, to transition from one scene to the next and to add suspense and tension.
“Contagion” features as stellar cast, including Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard, Elliot Gould, John Hawkes, Chin Han and Jude Law (in addition to the previously mentioned Paltrow and Damon). A criticism of the film is that in a few scenes (not many) the acting and some of the dialogue falls a little flat. I won’t harp on this, because in general the acting and script are quite good. I especially enjoyed Winslet’s and Ehle’s performances. Another issue is that the depth of focus camera work used by Soderbergh borders on being overused. But these are minor issues when you look at the film as whole. “Contagion” is a taut, thinking-person’s thriller. You’ll be mesmerized, and henceforth,will be eternally weary of germs lurking on door handles, elevator buttons and on the hands of others.
Rating 3 out of 4 stars
2011, Rated PG-13, 105 minutes, Action, Sci-fi, Thriller