In the 1970s, the biggest craze in mainstream American cinema was the disaster genre. Many of these were produced (and sometimes co-directed) by Irwin Allen with topics ranging from airplanes (Airport), boats (The Poseidon Adventure), fires (The Towering Inferno), natural disasters (Earthquake), real incidents (The Hindenburg), space (Meteor), and even bees (The Swarm). Aside from the action sequences, the one thing I loved about these movies were the outrageous casts that were assembled. Take The Towering Inferno for example (a movie that my family showed me as a kid and I even once watched it for a class that I didn't like in high school). Where else would you find Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, and even O.J. Simpson all in the same movie?
The reason I mention this genre is because I feel that director Steven Soderbergh's Contagion is a 21st century equivalent of those films, large cast and all. Thankfully Roland Emmerich didn't make this as he is too busy figuring out how to convince a whole new generation of high schoolers that Shakespeare is a fraud (ZING!).
The plot just has this modern day realism to it. An airborne virus has been unleashed on the public. Countries around the world are gathering their specialists to focus on a cure as the disease is spreading far too quickly to bother trying to figure out how it started (as one character says "the wrong bat met with the wrong pic"). Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (they previously made The Informant together) take the idea and set the scenario in the realm of hyperlink cinema (a term I like to use that was coined by film critic Alissa Quart).
We see how this all plays out from a variety of characters and viewpoints. It begins when Minneapolis native Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) dies from a seizure. She just came back from Hong Kong and it is believed she contracted some sort of disease while over there (don't worry, I'm not spoiling anything that wasn't advertised, Paltrow continues to be a presence in the film through flashbacks). The film then shows how different factions react to the spread of the virus ranging from civilians (Matt Damon, Sanaa Lathan, John Hawkes), doctors from the C.D.C. and W.H.O. (Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin, Elliott Gould), law enforcement/military (Enrico Colantoni, Bryan Cranston), and even the media (Jude Law). As you can see, this allows for an all-star cast with many recognizable names.
I have to single out the works of Damon, Fishburne, Law, Winslet, and Ehle. All the actors in the ensemble do a great job, but those five really carry much of the emotion. That leads me to think of perhaps the film's most notable flaw. The scope of the story is so big that the characterization isn't as strong as say Soderbergh and Stephen Gaghan's Traffic. There are some great moments and I can forgive the weaker characters because the bigger picture of the story is encapsulated so well.
As many have pointed out, Soderbergh's cinematography is in top-form and the score by Cliff Martinez (of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame and regular Soderbergh collaborator) is also unique and well-placed. All of the film's technical elements just contributes to us understanding the slow build-up to eventual societal madness. The story, directing, and acting just conveys the fear that everyone begins to feel. The film's premise is scary in and of itself. People are just going about their day and from restaurants to classrooms, they are literally a touch away from dying. The way they find out is from a little thing we all do- a cough.
For those who haven't heard, Soderbergh plans to only make a few more films and then retire to become a painter (Haywire is coming out in January, Magic Mike is moving ahead, and he still has Liberace and The Man from UNCLE in the pre-production phases). I'm going to miss seeing his chameleonic talents as he moves from genre to genre. At least he has left us with some very memorable films, one being this powerful drama that has jumped to the top of my favorites list for the year.