Review: Contagion

It's a disaster movie – but a methodical, mundane, no-fuss disaster movie: a cataclysm procedural which charts the spread of a global epidemic stage by stage.

And it starts with Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning from Hong Kong feeling a bit rundown and bringing a virulent new strain of bird flu into the United States.

I was all pumped up not to like this – as a child just the title sequence of Terry Nation's Survivors was enough to give me nightmares – but any film that casts Paltrow as a delivery system for global catastrophe and casually kills her off after a few minutes is a winner for me.

It is a broad mosaic of small events, very skilfully weaved into a single, if occasionally elliptical, narrative. The film never quite gives you a full picture and never quite takes a stand on who should be trusted. And it is all so grimly plausible.

Most scenes are people talking in rooms. With its electronic score by Cliff Martinez, it is like The Social Network without the self-satisfied 'sharp' dialogue.

Apart from the Hong Kong sequences, everything is lit in Steven Soderbergh's favourite yellow and blues. It's not surprise everyone is sniffing, the whole film looks like it was shot in a world where nobody can afford central heating.

The film is very good on the touching – lots of shots of hands caressing surfaces, shared surfaces. It all becomes a little inadvertently puritanical, as if with all this wanton touching of stuff we are bringing disease upon ourselves. Also why is Beth revealed to have been unfaithful? It isn't relevant to the story and feels judgmental?

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The all-star cast doesn't undercut the realism. Their stardom should give them some kind of protection – not perhaps from dying but certainly from undignified, non-heroic deaths – but the callous abruptness of Paltrow's demise emphasises the danger.

The only distraction is wondering where exactly Jude Law is aiming at with his accent. I think Australia, but could be wrong. Aside from that, he's rather good as a conspiracy blogger whose online readership growth mirrors that of the disease itself.

Contagion is very fine and more entertaining than I expected. But it would still be a perverse choice for a night out.

It made me realise why most disaster movies trade in silly melodramatics rather than cold, hard realism – it's to make them bearable.


Director: Steven Soderbergh

Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Gwyneth Paltrow

Length: 105 mins