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, and Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburne work for the Centre for Disease Control.
The film addresses its grim subject in a cool, matter-of-fact way. The dialogue is packed with medical jargon, courtesy of the brilliant screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who also wrote Soderbergh’s equally well-researched The Informant! (2009). Yet the picture of society offered here remains narrow and abstract.
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 interests Soderbergh 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).
Moreover, the various systems portrayed within Contagion serve as metaphors for the network that is the film itself, where shots seem linked to one another along multiple paths.
The camera is locked down 90 per cent 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, Soderbergh goes some way towards hollowing out the star system. After her death, Paltrow’s character is reduced to a corpse to be dissected on the one hand, a set of archival images 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.
We’re a long way from the reassuring humanist sentiments of a film like Babel (2008) even if Soderbergh, too, is interested in the invisible lines that connect us all.