There are many ways in which Steven Soderbergh’s pandemic saga Contagion is unlike 1995’s Outbreak—no inexplicable helicopter chases, for one—but a not-so-obvious difference is their choice of villain. In Outbreak, it was the big bad government, by way of the military, that was out to destroy lives—a holdover from the paranoid Nixon era. Here, the bad guy is a much more modern threat: a blogger.
Starting with Gwyneth Paltrow—who drops dead soon after having an extramarital affair with Steven Soderbergh, cameoing by voice only—a disease quickly engulfs the globe, its cure eluding sleep-deprived scientists like Kate Winslet and Jennifer Ehle. The situation is exacerbated by Jude Law’s Alan Krumwiede, a freelance blogger with a dangerous combination of ignorance and arrogance. He sets out to mendaciously erode faith in the systems that (try to) keep us safe, employing half-understood facts and outright lies to claim, among other tall tales, that a cure exists but is being thwarted by pharmaceutical companies. (His proof: Well, why wouldn’t they?) He obnoxiously shouts down meek doctors on television and brags about his multitude followers, as though popularity equaled credibility. Andrew Breitbart would love him.
Humanity being taken down in part by misinformation, spread from dubious sources to audiences both paranoid and gullible, is an all-too believable threat, in some ways scarier than the supervirus itself. It’s also not an overtly thrilling one, and some will complain that Contagion oozes reality at the expense of populist thrills. Soderbergh neglects to wipe out his all-star cast, Mars Attacks!-style, and, Law and Matt Damon, as a widower, aside, regulates them to functional, non-showy roles. At times Contagion is spread too wide, plowing through its many-tentacled narrative while forgetting to invest in characters; even Damon, the closest to an audience surrogate, disappears for large stretches.
But that’s by design. Of the Soderbergh oeuvre, the closest comparison here is to Che, in that it’s a passionately dispassionate film about process: how we handle catastrophes, how science (slowly) happens, what it’s like to live in a society that’s falling apart then being rebuilt. It’s a cold film with pockets of humanity; its most moving scene shows Winslet, after waking up infected, trying to maintain practicality in between choked-back tears. Contagion is easier to respect than love, but very easy to respect. After all, it not only exploits a modern fear, it diagnoses it as well.