Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is almost oppressively gloomy. Overcast skies, dim lighting, drab clothing, strict stylization. You can practically feel a cold, biting wind blowing off the screen as you sit and watch.
But I need to specify that I say almost—Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is almost oppressively gloomy.
For some, the distinction will be minimal or almost non-existent, and I really can’t fault you for that. As the titular virus spreads across the country and around the world, humanity appears to break down entirely. Burned out cars litter the streets like crushed soda cans. Shattered glass glitters on the floors of empty convenience stores, grocery stores and practically every other kind of store imaginable. Leave your car unattended for just one second and it becomes the target of thieves, or at least someone desperate enough to siphon your gas tank.
And yet, even as civilization descends into chaos, there are flashes of hope–a cross in the background, a nun tending to a sick man, both conscious ingredients of the film’s mise-en-scène. True, they’re brief, but they contextualize Soderbergh’s filmed world, situating it within a broader social history marked by the tenets of Christianity and still effected by them through the simple choices of the movie’s characters.
The biggest name in Contagion’s long list of high-profile performers is Matt Damon. He’s eclipsed, though, by Laurence Fishburne, the film’s standout performer. Fishburne plays Dr. Ellis Cheever of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). He and those around him are tasked with the great burden of studying Contagion’s virus, getting to know it, and creating a vaccine to stop it.
He’s also invested in mentoring a field agent, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), who’s traveled to Minneapolis to research the virus’ beginnings. This leads her to Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), the husband of the woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) who brought the sickness home from a business trip to Hong Kong and was one of its first victims.
All of this unfolds briskly, at a pace underscored by a driving electronic score by Cliff Martinez, with other figures popping up along the way, notably Marion Cotillard as Dr. Leonora Orantes of the World Health Organization, and Jude Law as Alan Krumwiede, a blogger who believes the government actually has a cure for the virus but is refusing to release it. Alan’s theory proves to be just as contagious as the bug that’s going around, and he’s soon of particular interest to the government.
There are more wonderful players to mention—Elliot Gould, John Hawkes, Jennifer Ehle, Chin Han—but their roles in the story are limited. In fact, part of what keeps Contagion from being more than merely a very good Hollywood picture is that the script spreads itself too thin. One minute we’re in Hong Kong, the next we’re in Minneapolis, New York, or London. All of this is great for creating a sense of authenticity and scope, but the connections we’re able to forge with the characters are diminished as a result.
Soderbergh should’ve taken a lesson from one of his own films, Traffic. Like Contagion, Traffic had a large cast and interrelated storylines, this time with drug trafficking as the focus. Each storyline was restricted to one location and was given it’s own distinct look to boot. The overall effect was a more rooted, more impressive story.
But even if Contagion may feel a little thin, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to like, respect, or even admire certain characters. Fishburne’s Dr. Cheever and Ehle’s Dr. Ally Hextall stand out for their poignant moments and small acts of heroism. Their sacrificial decisions starkly contrast with the chaos around them, preserving the image of God in humanity. They are proof that when the going gets tough, it’s not a matter of kill or be killed. It’s putting the needs of others before yourself that will ultimately save the world.
To what degree movie audiences will be moved by these shimmering moments of compassion, I can’t say. Personally, I was. They are what made Contagion gloomy, yes, but only almost so.
Andrew Welch has published reviews with Relevant magazine and Books & Culture. He currently lives in Denton, where he’s working on a master’s degree in film studies at the University of North Texas. He’s on Twitter if you’d like to follow him, and you can visit his film blog.