Last semester, my professor told me something disturbing.
In the class Disease and the Developing World, we were talking about infectious diseases. My professor explained to us the potential of a virus crossing over from an animal to a human and the possible devastation it could cause.
The thought of it was terrifying, but I was able to brush it off because I had difficulty visualizing it as a reality. The new film Contagion, however, effectively takes this idea and turns it into the disturbing reality I didn't want to imagine.
The film starts with a cough, a simple innocent cough. Though coughing is something we've all heard and done before, this cough is different. We know that the person coughing doesn't have the flu or a cold, but something much worse.
This person is Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), a woman who just returned from a trip she took to Hong Kong. When she arrives home to her husband (Matt Damon) and son, she says she's jetlagged. The next morning she collapses and has violent seizures. No one knows what's wrong or what to do.
Several people all over the world start to show the same symptoms as Beth. This causes the government to bring in the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization to help control the outbreak and hopefully discover a cure for the virus.
Once the virus begins to gain more attention, the film starts to play out like a medical procedural drama. It gives great focus to describing the process of quarantining infected people, stopping the spread of the disease and the effort it takes to create a vaccine.
Unfortunately, all these intriguing medical elements come at the expense of character development and emotional content. Many may find this off-putting, but the film still stands. Most of the characters we observe are doctors who have been trained to stay calm and detached in the face of death. It would have been nice to learn more about certain characters, but the film's main focus is creating tension and advancing the story.
Director Steven Soderbergh juggles an enormous cast of A-list stars in Contagion that includes Paltrow, Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard and Lawrence Fishburne. Incorporating so many characters and story arcs is often difficult to do well, but Soderbergh manages to make it work.
The only pitfall is that some are bound to be more interesting than others. The epidemiologist played by Cotillard starts off as a strong character when she attempts to pinpoint the genesis of the disease, but once that is discovered she essentially becomes pointless.
A key element to the film's success is Law's character Alan Krumwiede, an online blogger who is convinced the government is keeping vital information about the virus from the public. His character cements this film in the modern world, where technology and communication can lead to panic and anarchy during a global crisis.
Soderbergh's film is a tense thriller that is equal parts engaging and disturbing. Soderberg takes images and shots that would normally seem trivial and makes them terrifying. I have never been so petrified of a bus pole or a bowl of nuts in my entire life. With its propulsive energy and staunch realism, Contagion is one of the best thrillers of the year.