In the all-star disaster movies of the 1970s, the A-list stars looked like A-list stars. They were beautiful people trapped in beastly situations and at least part of the audience's entertainment sprang from Schadenfreude. It was as if these stars were paying the price for being too rich and too famous, and now, as we cheered on, they were dying agonisingly in towering infernos and earthquakes and airports and on Poseidon adventures.
At first glance, Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, which concerns itself with a worldwide viral outbreak, appears to be a revival of this bloodthirsty tradition — only this time we don't cheer because the stars look like us. Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet appear with splotchy faces and tousled hair. Jude Law's smile reveals a snaggletooth. Matt Damon, the nominal protagonist, is more Everyman than usual. And Marion Cotillard can barely bring herself to dab her lips with colour. Soderbergh's principal contribution to the disaster movie is to commit an army of A-listers to the screen and shoot them as if they just stumbled out of bed.
He also drains away all drama, which results in a movie that's simultaneously praiseworthy and pallid. While it's a relief to be spared the blockbuster clichés of the genre — the moments of noble sacrifice, set to stirring music, as man helps fellow man; the last-act reunion of bickering spouses; the heartfelt message from the President advising his countrymen to soldier on in this time of crisis (the President, in Contagion, is whisked off underground by the secret service, and we neither see nor hear from him; God, similarly, is AWOL) — we're also left with nothing to care about and nobody to root for. A doctor says, early on, “Some people get a disease and live. Some get sicker and die.” This fatalistic shrug, while alien to Hollywood, is entirely in tune with Soderbergh's approach, which is less interested in the chilling descent into disease and the triumphant snatch from the jaws of death than in the cool chronicling of a global phenomenon.
Contagion isn't the work of a dramatist but that of a dry-eyed observer, who might be composing an objective-minded thesis on the ability of a wretched microscopic organism — called a “novel virus,” as if it were spawned by a beach-read — to rattle the length and breadth of the world. How do you show the spread of an invisible creature, without resorting to diagrammatic special effects? These are Soderbergh's tools: a bowl of nuts at an airport bar, a touch screen at a credit-card counter, a file on a desk, a glass of water, the handle of a door. Each of these, when touched by an infected person, make the transformation from dormant object to deadly carrier, and this montage of innocent, everyday things is intercut with images of men and women in various countries who come into contact with them and fall sick and spread this sickness, in turn, through the things they subsequently touch.
In Traffic, Soderbergh examined the drug trade from various narrative viewpoints, and he does the same here with those whose lives are touched by the virus. The researchers at the CDC and the WHO come to resemble detectives at a crime scene, spewing forth conspiracy theories and dispatching operatives on the trail of the microorganism. Homeland security worries if someone can weaponise bird flu. Television, the sole representative of traditional media, is content with mere coverage, while new media — blogs, Twitter — seeks to expose the truth. (It's the contagion of information versus the contagion of fear.) And ordinary men, driven to the edge, stoop to savagery.
Contagion is as well made as this sort of thing can be, but none of this is exactly new and you wonder why this needed to be big-screen cinema. When Martin Scorsese, in Casino, dives into the world of gambling and gives us an insider tour of an alien ecosystem, it's a heady education delivered with the thrilling tools of the medium. With Contagion, we feel like we've witnessed a late-night news report on television. By the end, we search in vain for the remote control by our side.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law
Storyline: The worldwide race to contain a deadly virus
Bottomline: Well-made but very familiar.