I’ve never been particularly impressed with scary movies. Growing up, scary movies had so little to offer that I could connect with, outside of the standard suburban setting and a general fear of death. An omnipresent psychopath who can’t be killed doesn’t jive with my notions of reality, and incessant gore is more disturbing than scary. But Contagion, the latest product of Steven Soderbergh‘s telescopic curiosity, is truly frightening. It follows the path of a diabolical virus as scores of people die and the world’s population loses its collective mind. It illuminates with strict veracity the rapid downward spiral of panicked masses, and it does so in a world as close to ours as the big screen can accommodate.
Contagion is a mess of characters and stories. It begins with the illness and sudden death of Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), and branches out in all directions: to the other individuals somehow infected by the virus, to the members of the CDC (Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet) and World Health Organization (Marion Cotillard) whose job it is to respond to this sudden epidemic, to the scientist (Jennifer Ehle) tasked with creating a vaccine, to the blogger turned prophet (Jude Law), to the husband (Matt Damon) and child Beth left behind. This is a story told from multiple points of view, and just as any story with multiple storytellers ends up a bit serpentine, so is Contagion occasionally convoluted. It’s no accident though, as Soderbergh is the type of director disinterested in making everything clean and nice for you. His films require a bit of intuition, and a bit of work on the part of the viewer. But that effort is worth the reward, as it pulls you deeper into a film which is all the better for your immersion. Experiencing this story viscerally makes it real, and the realer this story is, the more terrifying it is.
Contagion is apocalyptic in scope, traveling all over the globe to illustrate the power of fear. Though it is a virus that incites the events of the film, it is surely the predictability of human nature that makes it effecting. As the death toll rises exponentially, and cities begin to quarantine, the masses panic. There are empty shelves in the grocery store, and looted storefronts, even murders in the night, and that’s just in the Chicago suburbs. Damon’s character Mitch is our only civilian point of view amidst a lot of doctors and servicemen, and though he maintains a brave front, his edges seem more and more frayed as the film goes on. And who can blame him, the world is falling apart in front of his eyes.
This isn’t a performance movie, as the human drama of the whole situation seems to interest Soderbergh only minimally; he rarely lets his camera linger on despair or melodrama. Nonetheless, a few actors really shine. Kate Winslet’s Dr. Erin Mears is diligent but drawn, killing herself for people who have no interest in her help. And Jude Law gives one of his better performances of the last decade as the self-aggrandizing blogger, Alan Krumwiede. But as I said before, this isn’t a movie keen on showing off its talent; actors are here primarily to bring life to characters we already vaguely understand. Contagion is mostly telling us the story of the people who want to help, the heroes of this scenario. And just as the rest of the film is dictated by reality, these heroes don’t seem particularly heroic, and are surely capable of missteps.
In the end, the power of this story is going to be lost on a lot of people. We’ve seen far more glamorous apocalypses than this one, and at face value it doesn’t distinguish itself enough in a dramatic way to be anything special to the average summer (or even end of summer) viewer. But Contagion is realer than anything you’ve ever seen, a scenario based as much on facts and science as drama. Soderbergh seems like a director interested in exercises, and his latest film is precisely that: an exercise in chaos and fear, and what it would be like to watch the world end. And for all its meandering and hinting, it is a frightening success.