Director: Steven Soderbergh
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
“But, what if someone good made a horror movie?” That was Alfred Hitchcock’s question meant to reassure those who kept second-guessing his reasons for wanting to tackle a lowly little shocker that turned out to be Psycho. Many decades later, another really good director, Steven Soderbergh, poses himself, and the audience, a similar question by making Contagion, which he has described as his own “horror movie.” In it, a runaway killer virus unleashes global chaos. Civilized “order” quickly collapses. The “experts” prove inadequate. Self -preservation leads to greed and panic. And major chunks of the world’s population—played in this movie by some very big stars—die wretchedly.
We’ve already seen biohazard done on screen before but, with Soderbergh in charge, Contagion, with its multi-character structure and its location shooting all over the planet, plays like the Traffic of horror-disaster thrillers. It’s smart, well acted, believable and because it’s mostly done in a sober, documentary-like style, it’s often utterly terrifying. Working from a sharp, big-canvas screenplay by Scott Z. Burns (The Informant) that the avoids hokey, cheesy action sequences and opportunities for scenery-chewing, Soderbergh and his cast make clear from the jump that they’re out to scare the living hell out of us. Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow play an American married couple forced to confront the insidious virus when Paltrow returns from an eventful Asian business trip and quickly develops violent symptoms that confuse doctors, overtake her and, soon after, her young son.
Meanwhile, the mystery bug spreads unchecked around the world—and with horrific graphicness, too—while political bureaucrats fumble, panic rules the streets and CDC experts Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet and Jennifer Ehle race to find a cure in the U.S. while Marion Cotillard risks life and limb as a doctor working with the World Health Organization to isolate Hong Kong as the birthplace of the bug. Then there’s Jude Law as a firebrand blogger who goes on TV delivering a messianic rant against Big Pharma for withholding a simple antidote and John Hawkes as a struggling CDC janitor threateningly wheedling Fishburne for the hard-to-get antidote to save his family.
Contagion is relentless, jittery and makes one uneasy from its fade in to finale. The conflicted behavior of many of the characters raises all sorts of ethical issues and, when it really cooks, the thing is a bleak, powerful, nerve jangling nail-biter. Although the canvas and logistics are massive, the script and direction constantly keeps the human element in focus, which lets impressive performances—Damon, Winslet, Ehle and Law’s, especially—emerge. Even if the finale throws out a welcome, hopeful lifeline, don’t be surprised if you find yourself stocking up on hand sanitizer and glaring at anybody who coughs or sneezes anywhere within spitting distance. Contagion may not be “about” anything, it may not be deep and profound but, for sleek, skilled moviemaking, storytelling and acting—let alone for scares—it’s right on the mark.
About the Author
Playboy Contributing Editor Stephen Rebello has written many Playboy Interview and 20 Questions features. He is the author of such books as the notorious Bad Movies We Love (with Edward Margulies) and Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the latter of which has inspired a dramatic feature film set for production in 2012. His most recent Playboy Interviews include Josh Brolin and Cameron Diaz.