Kernel Rating (out of 5):
Length: 105 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Age Appropriate for: 15+. The death scenes may be too much for younger teens; specifically graphic is an autopsy scene that involves sawing open a character’s skull, with the camera focused on her lifeless face. Of course, countless gross deaths and some language are also elements to consider.
Bring your hand sanitizer (a vat of it) with you to ‘Contagion.’ Steven Soderbergh’s ensemble thriller is a delicate balancing act of terrifyingly realistic scientific horror.
By Roxana Hadadi
I used to laugh at those women on “Extreme Couponing,” with their rooms full of toilet paper, canned food and countless bottles of hand sanitizer. “Silly housewives,” I’d judgmentally think to myself. “What are you ever going to do with all that stuff?” Well, now, post-“Contagion,” I realize that when some vicious outbreak of a remorseless virus sweeps through the world, leaving countless body-bags in its wake, it’s going to be those women and their families who survive, thanks to all their resources and stockpiling. And it’s going to be me putting on a ski mask and looting their houses, fighting over bottles of hand sanitizer.
Sike! I have enough anti-bacterial products to sustain me, and I guess I wouldn’t terrorize any families (because my mom raised me better, and I’m saying that just in case she’s reading this). But Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” puts those kind of icky, anxious thoughts in your head after it forces you to realize how easily a virus could wipe out significant portions of our population. You won’t want to touch anything after coming out of the movie, and who could blame you? Gwyneth Paltrow’s death scene in the film is, quite honestly, spectacularly effective.
If you’ve read anything by Richard Preston, who wrote the 1994 nonfiction book “The Hot Zone” and the 1998 novel “The Cobra Event,” you’ll recognize similar themes in “Contagion,” which looks at an outbreak from the viewpoints of scientists, citizens and politicians. “The Hot Zone” traced how remote viruses Ebola and Marburg traveled from the shadowy jungles and caves of Africa to a monkey facility in Reston, Va., in 1989, and Soderbergh tracks his fictional virus in the same way. Where did it come from? Who does it contaminate first? How does it spread? Who dies and who lives? We can try to contain it, of course, but Soderbergh gives us degrees of success, not full-fledged triumph. Viruses still kill people. They’re basically jerks.
Soderbergh is an exceptional director when it comes to assembling and finessing ensemble casts — I stand by “Traffic” and all the “Ocean’s” movies, and will undoubtedly, embarrassingly see Soderbergh’s upcoming film about male strippers (“Magic Mike”) when it comes out — and “Contagion” is no different. With established stars like Paltrow, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law and Kate Winslet coming to the party, how could the movie be bad? It can’t. It isn’t.
The film begins with a black screen and a cough, and we’re off: Beth Emhoff (Paltrow), a marketing executive for an international company, gets sick with something while on a business trip to Hong Kong. She comes back to Minneapolis, to husband Mitch (Damon), but something’s wrong. Everything’s fuzzy. Her fever is high. She can’t stop coughing. She’s having seizures and vomiting. And soon, shockingly soon, she’s dead, a process so rapid that Mitch can’t wrap his mind around it at the hospital. “So, can I go talk to her?” he says after the doctor informs Mitch of her death. “I just saw her. We were just at home.”
But what ravaged Beth is now spreading, rapidly, through the world, a process Soderbergh tracks with subtitles informing us of the day and location of various events. At day 5 in Geneva, World Health Organization investigator Dr. Leonora Orantes (Cotillard) is sent to check out scenes where other corpses — a model in a hotel, a businessman on a bus — have been found. At day 6 in Atlanta, Dr. Erin Mears (Winslet) of the Epidemic Intelligence Service meets with Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) of the CDC in Atlanta to discuss how to handle media attention when she travels to Minneapolis to interview Mitch. Also working with Dr. Cheever is Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), who begins spending endless hours in the CDC labs trying to find a vaccine for the mysterious virus. And in San Francisco, conspiracy blogger Alan Krumwiede (Law) theorizes to his millions of followers that global governments will make money off the epidemic thanks to their ties with pharmaceutical companies.
Everyone has a role to play, but how the character threads interact — or don’t — is secondary to the virus itself. Soderbergh has created a horrifying, all-too-realistic prospect here, and as the epidemic goes global, administrations struggle to keep calm and rioting breaks out in the streets, it’s all a very palpable thing to watch unfold. Because of the film’s ensemble format, some storylines suffer: Cotillard’s character frustratingly disappears after a certain point, while Law’s blogger eats up what seems like unnecessary amounts of screen-time.
And yet that’s the unfair nature of an epidemic, isn’t it? As the doctor told Mitch, “Some people get a disease and live. Some get sicker and die.” How Soderbergh makes us feel for both those who perish and those who survive is the most gratifying, most human, part of “Contagion.”