Steven Soderbergh directs an ensemble cast including Laurence Fishburne (cool, calm, and collected), Matt Damon (heartbroken and desperate!), Gwyneth Paltrow (autopsied!), Kate Winslett (who, sorry to say, does not appear nude), Jennifer Ehle (scientific!), Bryan Cranston (insignificant!), Jude Law (slimy and limey), and Elliott Gould (Elliott Gould!) in this frightening film in the tradition of 1995’s Outbreak. A planet goes literally batshit crazy when a virulent new virus ravages its way from China to the U.S.A., causing a panic and the potential for societal collapse. If nothing else, the flawlessly paced Contagion demonstrates that the inevitable breakdown of civil order, whatever its cause, will not be fun. (Naturally, the disorder also provides an irresistible opportunity to depict ravenous white men rioting and robbing blacks.) A neat and polished product with an effective electronic score to match, this respectable but gruesome (and ideologically servile) entry on Soderbergh’s resume may suffer only from slight dearth of soul.
[WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS]
4 out of 5 stars. Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Contagion is:
9. Pro-gay. The virus at one point mutates into some funky kind of variation on AIDS, reminding viewers of how urgently the world needs a cure for gay cancer.
8. Anti-miscegenation. Unusual interspecies contact has brought the new disease into existence. “Somewhere in the world the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat.”
7. Black supremacist. The juxtaposition of a black doctor (Fishburne) and a white janitor (John Hawkes) says it all.
6. Egalitarian. Pesky “socio-economic factors” affect people’s susceptibility to the plague. When a vaccine finally becomes available, it is rationed by lottery so as to democratize the suffering.
5. Anti-slut. An adulteress (Gwyneth Paltrow) is Patient Zero.
4. Pro-family. Contagion features two touching father-daughter relationships.
3. Green and anti-capitalistic. An American corporation’s blundering program of deforestation displaces a population of oriental bats and so sets off a chain reaction that ironically takes the life of one of the company’s own executives. Black Friday crowds and confusion exacerbate the epidemic. Consumer culture must be regulated or Nature will have its vengeance! Undercutting Contagion’s environmentalist credibility, however, is its illustration of how convenient expendable laboratory monkeys can be during a catastrophic pickle.
2. Conformist. Alternative media receive a condescending send-up and a thrashing from Contagion. Decidedly de-glammed Jude Law portrays Alan Krumwiede (the name speaks for itself), a fringe blogger and crackpot conspiracy theory peddler who accuses the CDC of colluding with pharmaceuticals manufacturers, only to be exposed himself for profiteering on the crisis by stoking fears of the end of the world and defrauding the public by hyping an ineffective wonder drug called Forsythia. The lesson, one assumes, is that dissenters and those who promote distrust of government officials are not to be tolerated. Contagion is thus cronyism-tolerant in seeking to discredit those who would point out the distasteful symbioses between privileged corporations and grasping government.
1. Statist and pro-military. Self-sacrificing agents of the CDC, DHS, CIA, and other agencies contribute to the effort of saving humanity. Great pains seem to have been taken to show that the federal government has learned from the mistakes of Katrina. Laurence Fishburne’s wise technocrat even implies that the central government might do well to subsume all regional autonomies when he frets, “There are fifty different states in this country, which means there are fifty different health departments, followed by fifty different protocols.” In other words, why not just have one gigantic bureaucratized managerial leviathan to handle everything? End credits offer “special thanks” to the U.S. Department of Defense. Kate Winslet leaves the audience with the memorable image of woman-government-agent-as-Christ.