out of Five
Running time: 105
Steven Soderbergh takes a pleasingly intelligent approach to the outbreak thriller genre and the results are simultaneously gripping and emotionally engaging thanks to pacey direction, a smart script and terrific performances from a fine ensemble cast.
What's it all about?
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Contagion begins with businesswoman Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning home to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and their two kids after a business trip only to collapse and die from a mysterious flu-like disease several hours later. As similar cases occur around the world, panicked officials from the Centre for Disease Control (including Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle) attempt to identify the source of the virus, while examining and attempting to isolate disease hotspots.
Meanwhile, a World Health Organisation researcher (Marion Cotillard) lands herself in serious trouble when she visits a Chinese village that's consumed with the disease and a trouble-making blogger (Jude Law) gets involved with promoting a bogus cure.
The performances are mostly excellent: Matt Damon is terrific as a devastated family man resorting to desperate measures to protect his daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron), while Kate Winslet steals the entire film as an awkward official trying to do her job (her reactions when she's being shouted down by bullying bureaucrats are one of several inspired touches). Similarly, Jennifer Ehle is wonderful as a brainy scientist keeping a super-cool head amidst the mounting panic and there's strong support from Laurence Fishburne as Winslet's kind-hearted boss.
Soderbergh maintains a gripping pace throughout, ticking off all the best outbreak movie clichés (the Cough of Death is satisfyingly present throughout) and creating a palpable sense of fear and paranoia that will have you running away from anyone who coughs on the tube on your way home. On top of that, Soderbergh's not above exploiting his starry cast for blackly comic ends – for example, there's a grisly shot of Gwyneth Paltrow's head being cut open for autopsy that gets a presumably intentional laugh as well as eliciting the required shock.
That's not to say the film is entirely without flaws – for one thing, Jude Law's Australian accent is both atrocious and entirely unnecessary, while Cotilard's sub-plot is essentially dropped halfway through. The film is also guilty of some rather dodgy scare-mongering and is likely to create its fair share of germophobes as a result (it's telling that the filmmakers gave away a promotional hand sanitiser at press screenings); in addition, there's a faintly uncomfortable moralistic streak in that it seems as though Paltrow's character is punished for her infidelity.
Sharply written and smartly directed, Contagion is an engaging and enjoyable outbreak thriller with superb performances from a fine ensemble cast. Recommended.