A version of this review appeared in The Age, October 20, 2011.
At first glance, Steven Soderburgh's offbeat medical thriller might be mistaken for a standard disaster movie like The Day After Tomorrow (2003). A deadly virus sweeps across the globe, transforming the lives of various government officials and ordinary folk, most of them played by movie stars who have been nominated for at least one Oscar: Gwyneth Paltrow is one of the earliest victims, Matt Damon is her grieving husband, Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburne work for the Centre for Disease Control...
Typically for this director, the film addresses its grim subject-matter in a matter-of-fact way. The dialogue is packed with medical jargon courtesy of the clever screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who also wrote Soderburgh's equally well-researched The Informant! (2009). Yet the picture of society offered here remains narrow and abstract (and not always strictly believable). How do late-night TV comics respond to the plague? What new children's games or religious movements spring up? To answer such questions would take a different movie.
What fascinates Soderburgh is systems: how they intersect, where they break down. The spread of the virus is explicitly compared to the way information circulates around the planet, in particular the dubious rumours spread by a rogue blogger (Jude Law). As in David Fincher's recent productions, the various systems portrayed within Contagion are equated with the network that is the film itself – where shots seem linked to one another along multiple paths, like pages on the Internet. The camera is locked down ninety percent of the time, and different characters inhabit separate subplots as if placed in quarantine. Yet images still manage to “infect” one another – for example, when a scene from one part of the film appears on a TV screen elsewhere.
By implying that anyone can be killed off, Soderburgh goes some way towards hollowing out the star system on which he nonetheless depends: after her death, Paltrow's character is reduced to a corpse to be dissected on the one hand, a set of archival traces on the other. In a brilliant scene, medical researchers turn into film analysts, poring over security camera footage of Paltrow at a Hong Kong bar, trying to pinpoint the exact moment when the virus leaps from one person to the next. The coolness here is close to effrontery – and the absence of glamour has its own mocking force, like an undertaking to lift off the carapace and show the inner circuitry of the world. We're a long way here from the reassuring humanist sentiments of a film like Babel (2008), even if Soderburgh, too, is concerned with the invisible lines which connect us all.