Call it an immunization. Before Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion could hit the theaters, audiences had already been desensitized to epidemiological drama through exposure to the summer’s nimblest and cleverest crowd-pleaser, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. That film, too, had its viral infection—not to mention characters (I include the humans) more nuanced and engaging than any in Contagion and at least half a dozen more feats of cinematographic brio. Not to overdo the comparison, let’s just say that the Apes virus, under Rupert Wyatt’s direction, progressed with the propulsive globalism that sometimes marks Soderbergh’s filmmaking, and almost outperformed him at it.
But then, to Wyatt, unstoppable disease was a sardonic punch line to his movie, not the main event. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns have assigned themselves a tougher job in Contagion: not merely to chortle at biomedical disaster but to turn it this way and that, examining its many dimensions. They mean to show disaster suffered almost uncomprehendingly, for months, by lonely citizens; studied and worried over and never quite managed by networks of professionals; manipulated, sometimes with dazzling conviction, by self-promoters; amplified, on an urban scale, by mobs who no longer feel they have anything to lose, decency included.
And the filmmakers want to have fun, too—which leads to the contradiction in Contagion between purpose and style. Cautionary in tone, largely tech-procedural in plot and virtually metaphor-free in subject matter (its likening of epidemic disease to viral social media being too blatant to require explication), Contagion seems less a contemporary Panic in the Streets than an extended, high-gloss CSI: Everywhere. It skims back and forth across Hong Kong, Guangdong, Geneva, Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago and Minneapolis to give a panoptical view of the catastrophe as seen by ordinary people—or, rather, people who are frequent guests at the Oscars.
Here’s Gwyneth Paltrow, having the top of her head sawed off so her famously pretty face can be peeled away. (I spoil nothing by revealing that she’s autopsy bait; she’s already coughing on the soundtrack before the first image appears.) Here’s Laurence Fishburne, relying on his take-charge Nemo manner to run the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Kate Winslet, tamping down her fires to portray a CDC field agent exerting perfect self-control; and Marion Cotillard, smart as always in her tailored suit, dressing up beyond need the role of a World Health Organization functionary (or rather function of plot exposition). And here’s Jude Law. His dental work and wardrobe both distressed for the part of a vociferous blogger, he runs away with the movie as quickly as his fast-twitch actor’s reflexes will carry him.
One of the morals Contagion imparts is that an energy level as high as Law’s (or the movie’s) can be attractive in itself to a wide public, even without substance; whereas the patient, responsible goodness of Minnesota householder Matt Damon (here presented in his chubby, unshaven mode) may possibly abide but is surely destined to be neglected. It’s a hard lesson to absorb—especially for an entertainment whose principal moral is that our planet’s web of interdependence is drawing tighter all the time. Contagion valorizes the human concern of medical workers who understand they’re only a couple of handshakes away from multitudes on the other side of the globe; it mocks and demonizes the multitudes who think of themselves singly, as if their interests were separable from those of their fellow creatures (including nonhumans). Side with the heroes—those solemn stiffs—Contagion keeps telling us; but tacitly, the movie keeps allying itself with the fleeting, the carefree, the viral, made manifest in the brilliant rush of images that Soderbergh has shot in a perpetual motion of glowing colors and ominous points of contact.