I hate being sick. I suspect I’m not alone in this. Being sick makes me plunge into a strange kind of fatalistic despair — whenever I’m under the weather, I feel like there’s a possibility that I’ll never get out from under it. Ever again. I’m just going to feel shitty for the rest of my life.
Yeah, being sick can be scary. And Steven Soderbergh‘s Contagion is about everyone on the planet getting super-sick and feeling shitty for the rest of what ends up being their very short lives. Which definitely makes it one of the scariest films of the year.
Soderbergh tells his tale via the largest canvas he’s ever utilized since Traffic, to which Contagion is most definitely an unofficial companion piece. Things are tense right from the start — the first thing we hear is a cough in the darkness (a frequent and always stomach-churning sound in this film), making us immediately sensitive to the fact that there’s sickness lurking about, and it could be — and probably is — everywhere.
From there, we’re off to Minneapolis, where Gwyneth Paltrow has returned home to her husband (Matt Damon) and kids after a trip to Hong Kong. She doesn’t look too good. And then she dies. It happens that fast. And Damon, like any person in such a nightmarish situation, can’t quite comprehend something so unexpected and extreme.
And neither can the rest of the world. This super-virus is spreading like wildfire all across the globe, and we see its devastating effects on a large ensemble of characters. There are the various doctors, played by Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard and Jennifer Ehle, working with a sense of urgency and more than a little befuddlement. There is the blogger (Jude Law) known for his various conspiracy theories involving the government and its dealings with pharmaceutical companies, the outbreak promoting him (rather reluctantly, on his part) from journalist to almost mystical prophet. And there’s the everyman played by Damon, who has to put aside grief and confusion and just figure out how to survive.
All of the actors do top-notch work, but that probably goes without saying. And, actually, none of the characters or their individual storylines are the true focus of the film. The star of the show is the virus itself. Soderbergh, not surprisingly, explores and examines this killer and its origins without judgment — this is simply a life form that, like any other living thing, will do whatever it takes to survive. It has to live, and in order to do that, it has to go from host to host, leaving a trail of death in its wake.
However, while the director’s approach to the story’s “hero” is clinical (and very smart), the tone of the film — indeed, like the tone of Traffic before it — is almost overwhelmingly dark and unsettling. No matter how much we may try to understand the virus and accept it on its own terms, we ultimately can only measure it via our own human experience — and that experience ends up involving freakin’ worldwide genocide. This is truly a horror film if there ever was one, a depiction of an alien invasion that attacks from within — we can’t see it, but we sure can feel it… and then we feel nothing at all.
I’m probably making it sound a bit more ominous than it actually is. Contagion is also rip-roaring entertainment, a thrill ride that tosses and turns you for a mere 105 minutes. If you’ve got the stomach for it (ha ha), definitely check it out — it’s the first truly “grown-up” movie in quite a while and a great way to kick off the more serious fall movie season. Just don’t touch anyone else at the theater.