Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Jude Law
Imagine the chilling prospect of a deadly pandemic throwing the entire world into chaos. In Contagion, Academy Award winner Steven Soderbergh takes us on a high-pace cinematic experience depicting the emergence of a novel, highly contagious viral pathogen, and mankind’s dramatic struggle to contain the disease and find a cure. Unlike other disaster movies, the science behind Contagion is highly plausible and described in significant detail, often making the movie feel like a documentary — it’s appealing to the typical (nerdy) MIT crowd. Additionally, the movie features a star-studded cast — a key element for closely connecting with the audience and delivering an intense psychological drama. While highly ambitious and far-reaching, Contagion succeeds in being both an original artistic movie and an entertaining thriller.
Narratively, Contagion is a collection of disparate stories that become intertwined as they start relating to the pandemic. At least throughout the first half, the movie focuses primarily on the disease and its relentless spread. For those acquainted with the Pandemic series of video games or board games, the movie will feel eerily familiar. As the body count mounts, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) takes center stage and starts working around the clock to deal with the pandemic. The educational bent here is hardly veiled and I suspect the movie will quickly make it into curricula of many epidemiology and ethics programs.
But the movie never becomes an action flick with heroes that save the day. Instead, it zooms in on the psychology of the main characters as they develop conflicting interests and ulterior motives while struggling for survival. Meanwhile, in the background, the overwhelming fear of the impending disaster sends the civilized world into bouts of desperation and chaos.
Cinematographically, the movie is as uncompromising as any of Soderbergh’s previous great hits. The dramatic juxtaposition of fragmented stories with the greater narrative strongly recollects Traffic (2000), for which Soderbergh won an Oscar for best director. Casting an exceptional number of Academy Award nominees and winners — a typical Soderbergh move — harks back to the Oceans series (2001,2004, 2007). Highly artistic camera angles, including a predilection for tight angles, deep shots instead of wide angle shots, together with the obsessive attention to detail, contribute to a truly scrumptious viewing experience. To top it off, Soderbergh brings in his long time collaborator Cliff Martinez to pen an exquisite score — a perfect coagulant for the ever-branching plot lines. The music, an original blend of techno-rave with elements of electronic and spectral music, is more reminiscent of computer games than blockbuster movies, yet it is an uncanny fit for Contagion.
It goes without saying that the movie benefits tremendously from the top-notch acting. Interestingly, most stars are cast in somewhat atypical roles. We wait long and hard for Matt Damon to start kicking ass Bourne Identity-style, but in the end, all we get from Damon is a mix of discombobulated gazes and desperate poses. That is, however, much better than Gwyneth Paltrow, who does most of her acting after she succumbs to the virus, in a particularly disturbing, hair-raising (literally!) autopsy scene. Kate Winslet performs on a more familiar turf as a CDC field operative and her acting, albeit brief, is very moving. Jude Law also delivers an incredibly poignant performance. As a full time blogger, conspiracy theorist, and hack medical expert, he preys on the ignorant, the uneducated, and the desperate, embodying the scientists’ worst nightmare. Opposing him is the head of the CDC, played by Lawrence Fishburne, who puts on a remarkably stoic performance. As a World Health Organization epidemiologist, Marion Cotillard adds a refreshing international flavor to the cast and delights through her naturally mild mannered acting.
While not your typical disaster movie, Contagion is as thrilling as it is informative. I recommend Contagion not only on artistic grounds, but also from a life scientist’s perspective. As a movie that features crystal structures of proteins, epidemiology statistics, recombinant DNA and molecular biology in a scientifically accurate, yet still comprehensible presentation, this is the film all life scientists have been waiting for. True, it may not help you pass your next 7.012 test, but it will certainly get you intrigued with biology — and bats.