Warning: the following review contains spoilers.
So, the overall idea behind Contagion is one that we all know. First there was SARS- splashed across every news channel, on the front page of every newspaper, on every internet site. Millions flocked to their pharmacy to buy a mask and everyday we received new images of the scare in Asia. Then there was Swine flu which lead every single person with a cold to conclude they’d be dead in a few days. SARS turned out to be pretty minor over here in America- a seriously small number of isolated cases and no deaths. Swine flu definitely infected a lot more people, but after all the hustle and bustle ended up being like any other flu- people rested up for a few days and got better. But the fear- the fear was what did the most damage.
And that is what Contagion does best. It leaves you needing to compulsively wash or use purell on your hands every second. And it does this within the first five minutes of the movie.
A woman (in this case Gwyneth Paltrow, our patient zero) is coughing- right before boarding a plane. A young girl- an intensely blond model- sneezes and then places a portfolio down on a desk in a busy office. A business man coughs severely on board a crowded bus. A young man looks feverish right before getting onto an elevator.
Everyday events that happen all the time and usually mean nothing more than the common cold. But now? Now you’re seeing the initial spread of what will turn into the worst pandemic since influenza wiped out 50 million people back in the 1918- 1920 pandemic. And here’s the kicker: it’s not just these people that are spreading the outbreak, it’s everything they’ve touched within the past 24 hours. That elevator button. That hand rail on the bus. That portfolio. That pen. That door knob. That counter top. Everything is now primed to spread the virus onto the next unsuspecting victim. How many things have you touched in the last 24 hours?
And that’s it- without any more elaboration or gimmicks- that’s the point of the movie. Five minutes of everyday people doing everyday things and you’re gripped with fear. That is the power of Contagion. It takes an idea and infects you with it. That’s the whole point.
Here’s the problem: that’s pretty much the only point. Any of the other things that make a movie good- character development, fascinating plot line, interesting dialogue, visual intricacies- none of those are present in this movie. And that’s really too bad, cause those first five minutes gear you up for a hell of a lot more than what ends up being delivered.
Don’t get me wrong. It was interesting to see how the thing unfolded and (I think the movie argues) would unfold if this were to ever happen in real life. Society breaking down, individual families trying to hold it together, government conspiracy theorists rallying against the powers that be, kidnapping and blackmail to try to get the vaccine, all that. But it’s also pretty predictable. There are no edge-of-your-seat twists in this movie.
And, most disappointing in my opinion, no character development whatsoever. What you see of these characters in the first scene- whether they’re a nice person or an asshole- is what they will continue to be throughout the whole thing. And when one of the main characters dies, instead of being really torn up about it, you’re just sort of like “Oh. That sucks.” And that, for me, was a huge rip off.
I can’t help but think of Outbreak which, although on a much smaller scale, gives you the same glimpse of fear, societal breakdown and government conspiracy. Here’s the big difference though: you care about the characters in Outbreak. A lot. So when one of them gets infected with this illness that you know will most likely kill them you’re pretty broken up about it and will sit on the edge of your seat to see if the other characters can figure out the cure in time.
Not so with Contagion- the one character who even has a chance of being interesting- Marion Cotillard who plays a WHO doctor who is kidnapped and held for ransom buy a group of people desperate for the vaccine- walks off the screen with absolutely no resolution whatsoever. Seriously. At the end of the movie I went ‘wait a second- what the heck happened with that chick?’ They never resolve it. It’s like you’re expected to just forget about that plot line. And the sad thing is, with so many other characters followed in these five to ten minute sequences it’s highly likely that you will.
All in all? This movie gets as good as it's gonna get in the first five minutes and leaves you feeling rather under whelmed for the remainder of the screen time. My suggestion? Watch the trailer- that’s really all you need- and rent Outbreak instead.