In 'Contagion,' Many Actors but Only One Star: Disease

Impeccably cast and directed by Steven Soderbergh, the film nonetheless feels impersonal

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Warner Bros.

A pretty blonde American coughs lightly as she reaches into the communal peanut bowl at an airport bar in Chicago. A feverish young man in Hong Kong stumbles back to his apartment to seek shelter in his girlfriend's arms. A Japanese businessman collapses on a commuter bus, mouth foaming, as a fellow passenger records his ordeal on camera-phone.

The human characters are largely bystanders to the wax and wane of the biological apocalypse.

Much as he did with Traffic just over a decade ago, director Steven Soderbergh hopscotches neatly between the intimate and international in his new film, Contagion. But the trans-border affliction he is chasing this time around is at once more primitive and more complex than the drug trade, its vectors beyond human will or restraint. A deadly virus, soon to be named MEV-1, has leapt from bats to pigs to Homo sapiens, and all of our sapien-hood is helpless before its lethal molecular ingenuity.

The first to die is a woman in Minneapolis, followed shortly by her son. (Be reassured: the first 15 minutes of the film are the most brutal.) We watch as her husband, evidently immune, tries over the ensuing weeks to protect his daughter from the plague that lurks on the doorstep. Other characters are set in motion as well, almost too many to catalog: a World Health Organization official dispatched to China to determine where the virus originated; a doctor from the Centers for Disease Control tasked with containing the Midwestern outbreak; a CDC microbiologist hoping to unlock a vaccine; a muckraking blogger with an eye for pharmaceutical conspiracies; a litany of other physicians and epidemiologists and officials and loved ones and Dr. Sanjay Gupta as himself. And surrounding them all, occasionally overlapping, a relentlessly expanding universe of victims.

The cast Soderbergh has assembled for this multifarious endeavor could fill an Oscars-ceremony montage, with stars to spare: Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Laurence Fishburne. Elliott Gould is tucked away in there somewhere, and for fans of the small screen, Emmy monopolist Bryan Cranston. Their many less-famous castmates are comparably excellent, in particular Jennifer Ehle, daughter of Rosemary Harris, best known for her turn as Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC's 1995 Pride and Prejudice.

Working from a screenplay by Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant), Soderbergh guides his players through their intersecting trajectories deftly, without recourse to contrived coincidence. Over the past ten years, the director has experimented at virtually every point on the cinematic spectrum, from inconspicuous indie (The Girlfriend Experience, Bubble) to half-hearted mass-market (Oceans Eleven sequels), and it's nice to see him again undertaking a project of such scope and ambition.

Yet for all the human stories Soderbergh offers—the selflessness and selfishness on display, the frenzied churn of lives within spitting (or coughing) distance of death—his true narrative arc is ultimately that of little MEV-1, from germination to conflagration to remission. Though at times Contagion takes the shape of a mystery, as when researchers delve into the details of fomite transmission or study a casino surveillance video to determine their Patient Zero, the clues uncovered are ultimately tangential (at least insofar as we see) to the epidemic's resolution. With the exception of Ehle's noble research scientist, the human characters are largely bystanders to the wax and wane of the biological apocalypse.

To his credit, Soderbergh never descends to fatuous uplift or mawkish tragedy. (Even the film's intrusive, Tangerine Dream-y score is preferable to the swollen strings on which most directors would have relied.) Yet while the film is by no means unfeeling, its wide lens gives it a somewhat impersonal, almost clinical air. Much as it pains me to say it, the movie could have used a firmer emotional and narrative rationale—a lesson, even—beyond "wash your hands often and hope you're lucky." Lacking that, the film resembles its viral subject a little too closely: an intricate, formidable mechanism with no evident purpose. For all the craft that went into it, Contagion is ultimately beyond good or bad, beyond criticism. It just is.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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