It's a strange film that can make you feel like you're watching a documentary and actually wonder why you don't know how the whole thing turns out already. This was the sensation I was left with after watching Contagion, which like Soderbergh's other movies, weaves a lot of different stories and characters together to give you a full look at a particular issue (the one that struck me most was a comparison to Traffic, which I don't like, FYI). I'm not sure what he improved for Contagion but I liked the overall effect much better.
Basically, Contagion follows an alternate universe where an epidemic begins. Similar to SARS or Swine Flu or even the most recent H1N1, we see an infection (with a 25% mortality rate) unfold globally and watch how many different elements of society deal with it. First and foremost is the CDC (Centers for Disease Control)
and the WHO (World Health Organization) as the first cases appear in isolated pockets all over the world. There's a mystery element throughout the film as they seek the "patient zero" that initiated the whole outbreak. Unlike movies like Outbreak, this has a relatively low mortality, highly contagious (someone can basically touch you, so like the common cold) and doesn't make people bleed from their eyes. To the film's benefit, they seem to have focused a bit more on the societal and governmental response rather than making an outlandish disease that couldn't exist.
Some of this seems well thought out and creative in how they portray what are certainly published protocols for something like the CDC. Laurence Fishburne is in charge of this outbreak, and sends Kate Winslet to the field (Minnesota) to investigate and get the local health department up to speed in coordinating a response. We see her struggle to investigate the cases (Matt Damon's wife was the first case, which she passed to a lover on the way home) and to get the locals to react accordingly. Fishburne is also working with his scientists, Jennifer Ehle, to understand the disease and eventually create a vaccine, which they seem to do on a realistic, if panic-driven, timeline. And then Jude Law is a semi-paranoid blogger who wants to make the information about this potential epidemic public and points out all the people who benefit from the epidemic (drug companies, etc.) and will withhold the drugs or vaccines until it's most profitable to sell them. His story was a little over the top (or maybe that was just his teeth), but his part of the story needed to be told, if it was done in a really uneven manner.
There were still a LOT of stories that felt criminally under-developed. Marion Cotillard is the WHO representative sent to Hong Kong to map the first case, and is kidnapped and held for months. Matt Damon never becomes sick - why wasn't that discussed at ALL!!! A lot of the weaving together of all the stories is done well, but overall, you still feel like you're watching a documentary and haven't really become involved in very many lives. Good, but not great, leaves you with too strong a need to wash your hands. 3.5 of 5 stars/lambs
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