A stellar cast and timely plot line doesn't make up for the lack of emotional depth
Premiered at the recent Venice Film Festival, there’s a huge amount of buzz around Contagion – so much so that the US release date was brought forward to the weekend of 9/11, a time when people are remembering a terrifying event that affected, and killed, thousands of people.
But does Contagion – a story about the fictional MEV-1 virus that wreaks havoc across the world – live up to the hype? It certainly starts at a breakneck pace, with scary scenes that’ll ensure you wash your hands more often and stop touching your face (you do it about 3,000 times a day, apparently).
It’s Day 2, and in a Chicago airport Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is calling her lover. She’s been away on business in Hong Kong and is now going home. Within a day she’s having seizures, and soon after she’s on the slab. They buzzsaw her skull open, check out her brain, and the Medical Examiner says those classic words: 'Call everyone.'
Her son dies immediately afterwards, leaving somehow-immune husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and his daughter, Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) separated by a temporary quarantine, and unwilling first witnesses to the fury of an unknown and deadly virus.
Others are falling like flies in London and Hong Kong, and soon the hunt is on to find what’s killing everyone. At the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, head honcho Dr Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) is trying to stay in control as Homeland Security starts getting twitchy, and Dr Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) is beginning to organize what the mounting numbers of sick and dying are going to need.
Out on the streets in San Francisco is Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law sporting a ridiculous pair of gappy front teeth and showcasing an Australian or possibly South African accent), a blogger and conspiracy theorist.
He believes that the government and chemical companies are all in cahoots, and that there might be an antidote. He fuels the fire of panic, and soon State borders are closing and the National Guard are on the streets… yet still the death toll rises.
Director Steven Soderbergh brings his slick, crowd-pleasing Ocean’s 11 skills to bear here, setting up a cracking premise quickly and laying the path for a story that promises to have everything; an unseen enemy, a hopeless situation, a cast of heroes fighting for their fellow humans (even if it means their own sacrifice) and a race against time.
We’re in classic disaster movie territory, yet Contagion falls short of the mark. It fails to provide emotional depth. Sure, people are dying by the truck load, but with so many of them in so many places, there’s never enough time to get to know them.
With barely any idea of what’s at stake for them – and what decisions they might make as a result – it’s hard to care that much. Also, sometimes it’s so long before you come back to a character that you’ve not only forgotten about them, but didn’t see how they reacted to the escalating disaster: they weren’t frozen in amber, were they?
In attempting to raise the level of tension and make this a film that appeals to everyone – infectious diseases are no respecter of boundaries or oceans – it actually distances the audience, seeming too often to be more of an extreme environmentalist video about 'what might happen one day'.
The chronic lack of action – it’s all about boardrooms – is a problem too, and at times the film really drags. That’s not a good thing when there’s a parasitic time bomb exploding, soldiers on the streets and people looting and killing – the bubble around the cast needs to be broken.
The much-trumpeted desire to be scientifically accurate but not boring (screenwriter Scott Z Burns and Soderbergh worked for several weeks with Dr Ian Lipkin, a scientist renowned for his work on SARS and the West Nile Virus) is something the film accomplishes well, but sadly it isn’t enough to compensate, and instead ends up diverting the human focus even more.
Finally, stretching the laws of credulity further still, throughout the film Damon’s family home always seems to have electricity, his daughter her mobile phone, and Judd Law his website. In the US at least, hot weather regularly causes power cuts, and everyone knows how often their internet access crashes or their mobiles suddenly cut out, yet in the midst of disaster the Emhoff lights were blazing. Really? With society in chaos and disarray?
Contagion is far less thrilling – or believable – than it was clearly meant to be. So overall it’s an entertaining but forgettable diversion, one that, I admit, did have me shifting in my seat every time someone in the cinema coughed…
Contagion is on UK general release on October 21.