Viewed through another lens, Steven Soderbergh’s newest film, Contagion, could have been another $100 million disaster movie. By all means, a Hollywood picture about an unstoppable force of nature killing millions of innocent people is, nine times out of ten, going to be directed by Roland Emmerich.
But Soderbergh has never been the typical Hollywood director. Though his filmography hosts virtually every A-List actor of the last twenty years, it still feels weird to know that Soderbergh has gotten a half-dozen films produced by blockbuster-heavy Warner Bros. Studios.
So unsuprisingly, his disaster film is less about action set pieces and more about politics, psychology and science.
The film hits the ground running. Starting with the title card “Day 2” at the bottom of the screen, Scott Z. Burns’ script drops you into only the first of several story lines revolving around a large cast of characters. Some of them link to each other, and some don’t. Contagion isn’t trying tie it’s story together neatly, it’s trying to tell its story with as many sources as it takes to form the monster in the middle of the mess.
What the characters do share in common is that they’re all trying to survive a surprise epidemic of the likes that are completely within the realm of reality, but virtually forgotten in an era that has done a good job at containing disease.
Over the course of a year, the characters go through all the stages of this disaster; what starts as a nasty bug turns into a social panic that, as the film progresses, overshadows the catalyst that created it.
When the film focuses on the social consequences of its disease, it loses a bit of steam, but that this well-developed section of the film feels lackluster speaks to the power of its first part. Soderbergh effectively instills the terror of an invisible, airborne killer without ever having to visualize it directly (pay attention, M. Night Shyamalan). He understands that’s not necessary, the threat alone is enough to scare the audience.
With that in mind, Soderbergh gives us the most sterile of procedurals – it’s all routine here, zipping in scenes that span the globe as we follow men and women try to figure the disease, or just stay safe. It’s mostly just people urgently talking to other people, often in jargon that isn’t intended to be easy to track. There’s only the occasional scene showing groups of people panicking, and even then, it’s severely minimalized to be as slight as it can be.
Which is what makes Contagion so impressive: it’s practically a series of dialogues, so focused on the written word that it could easily make the jump to Theatre, but it never for a second feels like anything other than an action film. Taut editing and invested actors (Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishbourne, Kate Winslet, so many more) are all it takes to make this disaster film feel like the end of the world.