I've always been a fan of outbreak movies. Whether it's an old classic such as Panic in the Streets (1950), in which Richard Widmark had to track infected baddies Jack Palance and Zero Mostel around the streets; or a more modern film such as Outbreak (1995), in which Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo work against the clock to counteract a plague that's linked to a monkey imported from Africa (played by Marcel from Friends, trivia fans); there's great pleasure to be had in this type of race-against-time genre thriller.
Steven Soderbergh is the latest director to take on the genre. Contagion begins with a jar of peanuts on a bar of Hong Kong where they are touched by the already infected Gwyneth Paltrow. At this point, you'll be squirming in your cinema seat (carefully avoiding any contact with that person coughing beside you) as Soderbegh's camera cleverly focuses on all the opportunities for disease transmission, from handshakes to credit cards to bus hand-rails.
Pretty soon, the nasty virus (now called MEV -1) is zipping around the world and following Gwynnie back to the States and the arms of hubby Matt Damon. As you can already sense, Soderbergh is a director with a decent black book who has managed to attract a host (pun intended) of Oscar-winners, including Paltrow, Damon, Marion Cotillard and Kate Winslet. Not to mention the always entertaining Laurence Fishburne and Elliott Gould.
Unfortunately for some of these marquee names (though I won't reveal which), MEV-1 is no respecter of reputations and not even an Oscar will protect some of these actors from biting the bullet.
Contagion is a fine yarn that unfolds with an excellent cast (Winslet is particularly impressive as the scientist who knows all the statistics) but it suffers on several scores: the script doesn't allow us to get that close to any of the ensemble cast so our empathy is a bit lacking. Also, Soderbergh's pacing is non-existent and there is no sense of urgency in any of his set-ups. If there's one thing an outbreak film thrives on, it's that race-against-the-clock tension and that just doesn't happen here.
Indeed, looking at Matt Damon on screen, one wonders what Bourne Paul Greengrass would have made of this materials with his patented feverish (this time, no pun intended) hand-held approach.
Now that would have been interesting.