Review: 'Contagion' is a bit antiseptic

Jude Law is part of the star-studded cast of the film "Contagion."

Story highlights

  • The film 'Contagion' is chock-full of big-name actors
  • Director Steven Soderbergh presents a disaster movie of epic proportion
  • Reviewer says the movie is "a model of lucidity and clean, crisp storytelling"
Forget the butterfly effect. In a globalized century, it's a totally different effect you have to be worried about.
Steven Soderbergh's new movie, "Contagion," is a star-powered thriller that hops from Chicago to Hong Kong, London, Minneapolis, Geneva and beyond.
Each port of call brings another familiar face: Gwyneth Paltrow looking green and jet-lagged, Matt Damon as her tired and bewildered husband, Laurence Fishburne coordinating the response for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kate Winslet (wonderful), who is first in the field as the American fatalities begin to mount.
Jude Law is an Aussie blogger who smells the story before anyone in the mainstream media. Marion Cotillard is a World Health Organization scientist collecting data from the initial carrier in China. The English actress Jennifer Ehle is a revelation as another research scientist striving to find a cure.
If this all sounds like an old-fashioned disaster movie, that's not quite it. Soderbergh is a great systems director. He's fascinated with process, with mapping stuff out. Think of the networks of crime and punishment in "Traffic," or the labyrinthine ingenuity of the "Ocean's" capers.
So, yes, this is a disaster movie on a massive scale, with a death toll exceeding 8 million before it's even halfway done, but the emotional temperature remains cool and analytical. There's certainly a shock factor when we see one famous star dissected on the autopsy table, but there's not an awful lot of emotion here.
In many ways this restraint is admirable. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns ("The Informant!") do their best to resist the urge to furnish each star turn with a potted melodrama. What the news guys used to call "human interest" flows from the inexorable progress of the epidemic and the imperfect and largely ineffectual systems the humans put in place to control it, not from whatever soap operas these folks have playing out in the private lives.
Though of course their professional actions are never entirely impersonal. Heroes and villains do emerge. The former oftentimes buck the system and defy authority to protect their loved ones and assert their autonomy as best they can.
Interestingly enough, it's the same with the villains. In the face of a catastrophic social breakdown, morality itself slides into a gray zone where the old rules no longer make sense. At the same time, the movie asks tricky questions about privilege and power that resonate well beyond the obvious echoes of swine flu and SARS.
Soderbergh, who photographs his own movies under the pseudonym "Peter Andrews," is a superb technician. For long stretches, "Contagion" is a model of lucidity and clean, crisp storytelling.
I couldn't help thinking it's too clean, too antiseptic even, to do full justice to such a grim worst-case scenario. We're only a whisper away from a George Romero zombie movie, after all, but in his rough and ready way, Romero would surely have given us something much bloodier, funnier and scarier, something that would hit us in the gut as hard as the brain.
"Contagion" is impressive on many levels and honestly depressing, too, but it never quite matches Romero's trick -- it never brings the dead to life.