The end of the world probably won’t be much fun, but it’s often been filmed that way. From “Dr. Strangelove” to “Zombieland” to “Armageddon,” there have been plenty of doomsday scenario films that regard the end of time as a catalyst for comedic and adventurous possibilities.
Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” is a rare example that’s completely devoid of any such gimmicks. In fact, it might be one of the most realistic, dead serious considerations of how our society would handle an impending eradication. It fully understands that, when 26 million people and counting are dropping dead from the same thing, it’s not an occasion for wise cracks or action heroism — it’s actually just really terrifying.
The “thing” in question is a mysterious virus that pops up in a few countries, and then a few more, and eventually becomes a global epidemic of unseen proportions. One of the best demonstrations of this film’s grounded approach is that the virus isn’t some kind of sensational plot device. It doesn’t make people go crazy, it doesn’t transform anyone and it doesn’t cause a gore-fest. The virus makes people get very sick, have a seizure, and then die. And it spreads the way almost most any virus does — coughs, sneezes, microscopic germs. That’s what the characters are able to figure out. As for the cure — well, now there’s a mystery.
The virus has a pretty complicated origin, but we first see it through Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), a woman who travels from Hong Kong to her Minneapolis home, while making a quick stop in Chicago to cheat on her husband. A few days later, she’s dead. A few hours later, her son is dead too.
Her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), turns out to be one of the few who is naturally immune to the virus. So even with his wife and son dead and the ugly truth of his marriage essentially exposed, he at least doesn’t have to worry about himself and can focus on protecting his teenage daughter.
Good tradeoff, I guess.
That’s just the beginning. “Contagion” follows an ensemble of characters who, like the virus, are spread throughout the world. Among them are Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne), a top dog at Atlanta’s Center for Disease Control; Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a muckraking blogger who believes he’s found a homeopathic cure for the virus and a corporate conspiracy to withhold it; Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) a public health investigator at the World Health Organization who ends up in a different conspiracy; and Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), a doctor working for Cheever, trying to track the virus across America.
Each of these plot threads encompasses a different side of the epidemic terror — the paranoia, the public reaction or the failure of science in the face of this new disease. They also, progressively, dilute the story’s power. An entire film could have been focused on any one of these stories. Without that focus, it becomes increasingly difficult to actually get invested in any of these characters.
But that’s just part of the real problem here: For a film about a viral infection and global epidemic, “Contagion” never really picks up. Yes, it’s a very reserved and methodical film. But the longer the film remains so reserved and methodical in the face of escalating fear, the less compelling it becomes.
“Contagion” becomes a cold and disengaging experience as it drags along. What starts off as a fascinating, slow-building terror eventually feels like an apathetic apocalypse.
However, that might just be Soderbergh’s greater purpose. Despite its meticulous style, “Contagion” doesn’t exactly try to be an intellectual experience — there are no speeches, no grand revelations, no life lessons that emerge from the catastrophe. Instead, there are two things that are masterfully sustained through the film: the underlying terror of the whole situation and the obsessive focus on the minutiae of human interactions.
If “Contagion” gets you to think about anything, it will be the tiny, forgettable interactions we have every day that could, plausibly, lead to an epidemic.
So, for all of the film’s narrative threads and globe-spanning characters, these feel secondary to its most basic premise: Wash your hands before you touch your face.
Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.