I have an obsession when it comes to using Purell. I tend to use it multiple times a day and really freak out when the bottle empties before I've had a chance to buy a refill. I'm by no means a "germaphobe" but I tend to go the extra length to make sure I don't get sick. So going into Contagion, I was anticipating a movie that would make me squirm in my seat and run home to shower in a mixture of Purell and bleach. Yet in the end I was filled with an odd sadness when leaving the theater based on how little the movie actually freaked me out. While I enjoyed the film overall, I couldn't help but feel slightly underwhelmed. Contagion, while still a fantastically well made movie with lots of memorable scenes and characters, ended up being another example of a film that tries to do too much with far too little time.
The basic setup of Contagion is that a woman traveling for business (Gwyneth Paltrow) gets sick and quickly dies after returning home. The race is on to determine where the disease came from and how many people did she spread it to before her death (and how many people did they spread it to, and so on and so on). From there, Contagion kicks into gear as a multi-threaded story that tries to cover every aspect of the outbreak. This is where my main problem with the movie stems from. In trying to cover so much ground in less than 120 minutes, every section felt too thin.
Aside from the abovementioned Paltrow, the movie also focuses on her widow (played by Matt Damon) as he tries to adjust to his new life while also making sure his daughter stays healthy as society starts to break down around him. Then there is Jude Law playing a political blogger who uses the outbreak as an excuse to make some extra money and build up his readership. There's also Kate Winslet playing a scientist for the CDC who is trying to track down possible victims and help design a plan to quarantine the sick and stop the disease from spreading. Also, Lawrence Fishbourne plays another CDC worker who is tasked with overseeing the plan to contain and kill this disease, but begins having a personal conflict with how info is being handed out to concerned citizens. Those are just half of the plots running throughout Contagion. While I enjoyed every story going on within the movie, I was always left wanting more. I understand the movie was supposed to be a broad look at a real world reaction to such an outbreak, but I couldn't help thinking how much better it could have been as a miniseries or even as a TV show.
Having said that, I was amazed at how well Contagion was made in order to juggle so many stories yet always feel like the movie was pushing forward. I never felt like a jump to another story was a lateral jump, but always something that helped pushed the overall story a little further. One such reason for this was the incredible score that was used for the film. It's a minimal score that calls to mind some of the great Carpenter scores of the 1980s. It's slightly creepy while also slowly building to match the current tension on screen.
It can be really toxic for a film with multiple plotlines to have even one small story drag the film down even the slightest. Luckily, Contagion does not have this problem as every section was equally engaging. While I may have favored Damon's story the most, I was never bored or annoyed when it switched to another perspective. I also have to give the movie credit for not bending over backwards in order to make every thread tie together too closely. Sure, they are all connected under the umbrella of this disease, but I was happy to see no third act revelations that two characters from separate stories were related or some other nonsense typically seen in this type of narrative.
While I may have hyped up the potential of me getting freaked out over the disease aspect of the movie, it was actually a much more visible threat that shook me the most. I mentioned earlier that my favorite part of the movie was the story that focused on Damon's character as he tries to keep his daughter safe. We begin to see mobs of people fighting over the small amount of vaccine and food left and even see Damon's character witness a robbery across the street where men force their way into a house and kill (or wound) the people inside as they look for supplies. This was the most chilling scene of the movie for me and if any story could have been excised and made into it's own movie, it would have been this. It may be because I am a naive optimist but I like to think that big disasters such as the epidemic seen in the movie, people would bond together as they try to find a way to survive. It is the quick emerging of the mob mentality seen in this movie that really chilled me and gave me large amounts of anxiety even after I left the theater.
So while Contagion didn't make me run home and cover myself in cleaning products, it did leave a lasting impression as far as how vulnerable we are as a society to just a disease. Kudos goes to director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Burns for keeping so many stories in check and never making me wish the focus would switch back to something else. It's not an awards caliber movie but it was smart enough to really pull me into the world that was setup. I highly recommend checking it out and look forward to hearing what other people thought. At the very least, it will make you touch your own face a whole lot less.