The problem with our stupid, fragile bodies is that sooner or later something will get it. Cancer, a degenerative disease, or as Contagion argues, something new. Contagion tells the origin story of a deadly virus that causes worldwide panic and the deaths of nearly 30 million people. I’ve seen three exploititive movies in 2011 that gave me a strong physical reaction; We Need to Talk about Kevin was the best, Trust was the worst and most exploitative and Contagion is somewhere in the middle, closer to Kevin than Trust. The longer it went on however the less exploitative it became, or it least the more it turned away from exploitative opportunities.
After introducing its apocalyptic premise, a disease more destructive to humans than any other in history, it deals with that premise realistically. I learned a lot about the Centers of Disease Control and how these things are discussed and contained. It actually worked best as a doomsday procedural. Director Steven Soderbergh lines out the action very well and juggles his large and stellar cast. Gwynth Paltrow gets an autopsy, there’s Kate Winslet in a body bag, we have John Hawkes in a tiny role considering he’s been Oscar nominated, there’s Laurence Fishburn, Marion Cotilliard, Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Bryan Cranston, each in their own stories. It’s like New Year’s Eve except everybody gets sick and dies. Lord, what an improvement that would have been to New Year’s Eve. We see the disease at the beginning, we see the specialists try to figure it out, we see the media skew the facts and more than that we see humanity both good and bad as a man barely has time to grieve his wife and stepson and a man with inside information tries to save his own family while riotous crowds clamber for a vaccine. Special attention is given to how easily a disease can be spread as Soderbergh makes us watch in horror at things we do every day like touch doorknobs, shake hands, steady ourselves on a railing. I like Soderbergh a lot, especially his choice of material and how he oscillates from a pet projects to big Hollywood productions. He also has the ability to teach and is interested in how things work. From him I’ve learned about the casino business, the agriculture business, and now the disease business. This is what American movies can do when they’re good.