As an important film in the times we live in, Contagion is high on social commentary but low on character development.

What could have been THE motion picture event of the year takes a backseat as an ‘almost-there’ feature that has all the makings of a first class film but is somehow missing that all important wrapping: Presentation. Having said that, do not underestimate this film’s importance in this day and age. The central message serves to highlight the real and present danger we live in today — A threat that can wipe out a third of humanity within a matter of days if we are not careful with what we touch and who we shake hands with. If you are reading this, then like me, you have survived or avoided some of the deadliest viral outbreaks of the last decade. Even so, we can hardly take solace in that fact because hundreds of thousands of people have not been so lucky.

When we first hear of a viral outbreak or the onset of a highly contagious disease, it is usually through live news broadcasts or newspapers and is almost always within the first few weeks of the outbreak. Where this film excels is in taking the viewer through the first days of the outbreak and even places us at the source of the virus. As such, when Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from a trip to Hong Kong, she is visibly sick and passes the infection to her young son. Both of them die four days after she flies back to Chicago. Even as Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) struggles through his loss, he is lucky to be naturally immune but soon realizes that the death of his wife and son is just the beginning of what lies ahead. Cut to Atlanta, the department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are already aware of a lethal viral outbreak but does not rule out the possibility of a bio-weapon used by terrorists over the Thanksgiving holidays. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the CDC then deploys Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minneapolis to investigate further reported cases. Meanwhile, WHO epidemiologist Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) travels to Hong Kong to establish the source of the virus. Just as she arrives at the possibility that Beth Emhoff may have been ‘patient zero’, she is kidnapped by a local epidemiologist who holds her ransom for vaccines to treat his family. Back in the US, Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) of the CDC identifies genetic mutation from mixed bat and pig cells and establishes an alarming RO 2 factor, or the ability of the virus to pass from one infected person to two others. At this stage, the virus has become a global pandemic and martial law is instated in major cities due to mass looting, killing, and food shortages. In all this, freelance journalist and conspiracy theorist Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) becomes a local hero after claiming to have cured himself by using homeopathy and goes on to grab nationwide attention in stating that the CDC and other government organizations are involved in a mass cover-up that have led to the death of millions of infected all over the world.

There are two Hollywood directors that have very similar names while sharing the same initials. While one is an all powerful force in film making, the other is not too far behind. After a series of high profile casino heist movies, Steven Soderberg is back with one of the most important films of our time. Although this film features a huge array of A-list stars (seven of which won or was nominated for multiple Academy Awards), this film is a director’s movie, through and through. It is the manner of which the plot unfolds— Complex and multi-faceted, yet uniquely Soderberg. Besides his tendency to cast actors he has previously worked with, Soderberg has reached critical acclaim by choosing to make films that are sensitive or controversial in nature. Although Erin Brockovich is his claim to fame, Traffic is his best film to date not just for earning him an Oscar for “Best Director”, but for highlighting the world of cover-ups behind the drug trade. With Contagion, Soderberg fuels controversy again but it drowns out among the many sub-plots. Another plus is his convincing scientific arguments in the movie. You have to first isolate a virus, let it thrive and then fight it with an anti-body to create a vaccine. This, the multiplier factor, the latency of the virus, and the controversy behind it seem convincing and very frightening for an average viewer who has no proficiency in the medical field. What stops me from awarding this film a five star rating is the editing. Though the plot is griping, it is too fast paced as there is too much going on during its 106 minute runtime. This negates character development, which in turn does not allow enough time for the viewer to grow on any of the many characters or the actors portraying them. As a result, there is no protagonist or lead role and at times the film feels like a documentary or live news feed. Another negative I found is the annoying score that seems totally irrelevant to the on-screen action. On that note, if there was no score at all, the plot would have appeared a lot scarier than it is. My final reservation is with the abrupt ending. As already mentioned, there is evidently so much going on during the first three quarters that the final act seems to have something missing. It is not entirely a happy ending, but an ending that could have had a little more detail, nonetheless.

For what it’s worth, this film is a tense drama, and at times a decent thriller. However, coming from a Hollywood Titan like Soderberg, it could and should have been his best. Co-produced by ImageNation Abu Dhabi (there is also a brief reference to Abu Dhabi and a statistical illustration of the UAE), if this film is nominated for an Oscar it is surely big news for the UAE as an emerging force in film production. More importantly, Contagion serves as a very revelatory film on what goes on behind the scenes when disaster strikes. Its social commentary is also prophetic with a very farsighted warning – this is just the beginning. The worst is yet to come.

Rating: ★★★★☆

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.