With an all-star cast filled with Oscar winners and nominees and other great performances, the hypochondriac thriller of the year, director Steven Soderbergh's Contagion manages to shake the feathers off germaphobes everywhere even when its premise is very familiar.
Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon star as the victims of medical examiners of a mysterious epidemic that has quickly claimed the lives of thousands of people across the world. With symptoms that range from nausea, to fevers and even seizures Soderbergh follows what happens when the world is at the mercy of something they both fear and puzzle over.
Paltrow plays one of the first victims whose international business trip results in her vicious death, which sparks the series of questions of what it is, where did it come from, and how do they get rid of it. Damon plays Paltrow's remarkably grief-stricken husband whose performances clutches at the heart strings. Fishburne plays Dr. Ellis Cheever a director at the Center for Disease Control who recruits Dr. Erin Mears (Winslet) to investigate and contain the disease. Cotillard is Leonora Orantes, sent in by the World Health Organization to do the same thing. While the health authorities hasten their studies and investigations, Soderbergh shows the fatal ripple effect of the disease rapidly spreading (through everything from doorknobs to glasses and hand shakes) and causes both a fury and panic in each citizen. Meanwhile Law's character, journalist Alan Krumwiede, cooks up even more of a mass hysteria in the crowd with his myriad of conspiracy theories and CDC accusations.
With all the various elements that swept the story along, it was hard to get attached to any one character. Damon's portrayal is quite impressive but disappears throughout much of the movie. His story adds more heart to an otherwise drab medical thriller heightened by, for the most part, well-written characters in a movie that bears very close resemblance to 1995's Outbreak. In addition, the movie doesn't seem to have much of an endpoint. However its middle act is quite impressive as it builds a sense of uneasiness and tension in the audience ( further emphasized by a ticking time count for each scene) with its taut execution of the drama that unfolds. Law's performance can also be seen as a stand-out as it really serves as a propeller for rash emotions that often go through the minds of those in a unknown crisis. Winslet and Cotillard's performances could have been more impressive if their characters were a little more fleshed out. You feel like there's something missing from each of their stories, even though they're so pivotal to the politics of what's going on. Fishburne's Cheever is an example of a good sketch of a character in the same position, as is Jennifer Ehle who plays the brilliant Dr. Ally Hextall from Cheever's office.
While Contagion succeeds in teasing (however not maintaining) those emotions in its audience, it fails to bring the story full circle. It's also lacking A bit of a mixed bag at times, its overall well developed character sketches and good performances will certainly keep the attention of moviegoers and no doubt increase DVD sales (as well as, perhaps, sales of Purell).