Starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslett, Lawrence Fishburn and Jude Law.
At first blush, watching a documentary about Matt Damon's career didn't seem like a good way to spend my movie ticket budget, but then I realized that Contagion was about a different kind of viral infection. Our story begins with Gwynneth Paltrow's character as Patient Zero -- picking up a deadly new virus while in Hong Kong. As the infection spreads across the globe the brave bureaucrats of the CDC (Center for Disease Control) fight to understand the virus and fight it. Fast-paced and utterly believable, this is about how I imagine a real viral threat would affect the world.
Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is eager to board a plane back home from Hong Kong after spending time there on business and ready to be with her family in Minneapolis, where her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and two children live. By the time she is in Chicago we soon see her early demise when she begins coughing and looking very ragged. By the time she is home both her and their youngest son end up dead from this mysterious virus that also caused them both to have siezures. Being immune, Mitch can only watch his wife and son slowly succumb to the virus.
Beth's autopsy reveals that the virus is airborne, and CDC head Dr. Cheever (Fishburne) realizes that the virus has also claimed lives in Hong Kong and London -- all of this while intercutting how the virus is spreading through the natural course of every day things, such as touching, kissing, picking up a glass, etc. It makes you think twice about who you yourself might come in contact next. It really begins to get to you while the Center for Disease Control tries to get a handle on what the virus is, heading it off and hopefully developing a vaccination against it. As the bodies mount up, panic sets in and all the CDC can do is tell people to avoid human contact, which feels incredibly insufficient.
Civil unrest follows with people focused on trying to stay alive (Matt Damon's character won't let his daughter spend any time with her boyfriend, who insists he's not infected) or less savory types like Jude Law's evil conspiracy blogger tries to make money by selling a fake herbal cure. He tries to make money off this anyway he can and to me his character was over the top, almost cartoonish. Yes, there could be someone like him in a world of scam artists, but not this transparently evil in my opinion.
In contrast, the CDC's agents are shown as uniformly selfless and heroic, with only local government officials being craven and ocassionally stupid. Human beings in general end up behaving badly. Contagion would have benefitted from a teeny little bit more moral ambiguity.
Setting up locations for the sick to be contained and pin pointing who the original virus carrier seems to be the CDC's best (and at one point, only) course of action. While Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) tries to develop a vaccine, Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) is a field agent trying to trace how the virus spread and setting up ways to isolate and care for those who are infected.
Contagion cuts between these stories and several secondary ones -- the story being told is not really about the paranoia and fear generated by the virus, but rather it is a sort of realistic portrayal of how humanity would deal with such a deadly virus. This is not a horror flick or even an action movie. It's simply a 'what if' film -- it's more of a dramatic story that will leave viewers wondering how they would personally battle against a viral infection. Contagion is scary, very scary on that level, and it will stick with you long after the credits roll.
Disclaimer: This movie review is virus free.