A ghastly virus breaks out. It kills so fast that any hope to find a suitable remedy in time becomes elusive. A father, whose wife had died, tries to protect his daughter from the evil disease (Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Anna Jacoby-Heron respectively). The government official (Laurence Fishburne) with field experience shows his toughness and rigor to handle the nightmarish situation according to his professional standards. He cooperates with the World Health Organization, which in turn sends a cute epidemy specialist (Marion Cotillard) to analyse the trajectory of the virus and determine where it had come from, ending up on site in Hong Kong. The scientist in the laboratory (Jennifer Ehle) does what she can and all along the viewer waits for an unexpected turn in the plot.
Is a James Bond villain behind all this? Does the CIA have secret intelligence? Can it be that a Swiss pharmaceuticals CEO has gone insane under the current economic pressure and a little experiment to boost the sales for Aspirin went way out of control?
No, nothing, the story just continues and the source of the disease is backtracked to an obscure bat population in the Asian jungle. The whole trick box of elaborate Hollywood dramaturgy remains closed, giving preference to a Realistic account of a current-day bio-catastrophe. There is no evil scheme to be discovered. The guys in power are working hard, doing their job as best as they can. The alternative souls (Jude Law as Frisco-based wannabe journalist) are as corrupt and prone to sell their conscience to greedy hedge fund managers as every other human being could possibly be. And even the offices of high profile government organisations, and with them their functionaries, are suspiciously unattractive.
Steven Soderbergh, who wants to see this? Hollywood is the dream factory, not the documentary Mecca! It is easy to dismiss this film as unsuccessful try to wrap an action plot into some layers of the Real. Boring! On the other hand, do we need to see another hyper-stylized, action packed, fast cut, over-dramatized doomsday film? Isn’t Steven Soderbergh here discovering an interesting gap that uses all the tools Hollywood has on display, but does not heighten them to a flasher à la Michael Bay?
The film is purely led by the prosaic unfolding of a story, which could happen any day, without any conspiracy scheming that goes unnoticed by the public. The lead characters are not immortal (Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, watch out for Mr. Soderbergh’s casting director, he might eventually get you), nor are they overly beautified (ok, Gwyneth Paltrow looks sexy in a party scene, but no one else would show her deliberately with reddened skin irritations on the neck, I guess) or morally beyond (the people having privileged access to the vaccine that is eventually found gladly take it, without making too much fuss about their ius primae seri). Contagion doesn’t bother too much with aesthetic conventions or viewer’s expectations. It just tells it how it is. Hollywood for the quotidian.
CONTAGION played Venice 2011 and opened in September in Hong Kong, Singapore, Italy and the US. It opened in Hungary on October 13th; and in Finland, Ireland, Poland, Sweden and the UK on October 21st; in Norway on October 28th. It opens in Belgium and France on November 9th; in Spain on November 29th; in Australia on December 3rd and in Germany on December 24th.