Soderbergh breathes life and death into Contagion

by Mark Burger

Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is a compelling, credible and often ferociously effective thriller that ranks as one of the year’s best films to date, and yet another triumph for Soderbergh, who keeps vowing he’s going to retire. (That would be one less reason to go to the movies.)

With a superstar cast working at full throttle, Soderbergh — working likewise — has fashioned a riveting exercise in paranoid suspense with all the trimmings of a morality play.

Contagion, penned in far-reaching but intimate terms by Scott Z. Frank, is about a virus, a lethal, flu-like strain that strikes swiftly and without warning. The death toll begins mounting even before the worldwide scientific community can identify it, much less devise a treatment.

The situation goes from bad to worse to global in chilling fashion. As the story shifts from character to character, it becomes understandably episodic. Yet only rarely does that interrupt the film’s momentum. There are even some major characters whose fates are undisclosed at the end. Nor do they need to be. One can easily presume — and presume the worst.

The star-studded cast provides the film’s emotional heft. The scientists scrambling to find a cure (and a cause) include Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Winston- Salem’s own Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin(!) and Elliott Gould. The “Everyman contingent,” provided with less information than their scientific counterparts and therefore more apt to panic, include Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hawkes. All are in fine form, with Fishburne and Gould (in a fantastic dramatic turn) of particular note. Cliff Martinez contributes an excellent score, judiciously utilized by Soderbergh.

The characters, each in their own way (and in one big way), are easy to sympathize with. Even Jude Law’s opportunistic freelance journalist (they’re always trouble) and prophet of the apocalypse is

recognizably human and deserving of some sympathy. Only the government officials, charged with keeping the population from panicking — and therefore inspiring more — seem stereotypical cinematic archetypes. They’re less help than hindrance, which is no surprise.

In such a climate of fear and uncertainty, the desire to survive supersedes whatever moral and ethical boundaries we’ve placed on ourselves. This cataclysm brings out the best, and the worst, in people. The fragility of life is matched by the fragility of civilization. Intelligence, sophistication and modern amenities mean little in the face of so heinous a threat. Contagion requires few special effects to convey the scope of devastation; it’s everywhere. Each casualty is a loss for all.

The principal character is, of course, the title menace. It lives. It grows. It breathes.

It’s breathed.

The virus is the catalyst. Its very presence pervades every frame of the film, and it’s a magnificent (and unseen) device with which to build tension. And even if a way is found to fight it, the world will never be the same.

An analogy to Sept. 11, 2001 — especially so close to the 10th anniversary — can easily be read into the proceedings.

Yet Contagion rarely becomes heavyhanded in making its observations. It’s “only” a movie — something that nervous viewers may want to remind themselves of! — but it’s one that entertains, provokes thought, and perhaps provokes fear. And it’s meant to.