It really is stunning how quickly the stale, end of summer cinema can blossom into the quality-driven beginning of fall. After weeks of box office flops, the fall movie season could not have come quick enough. Much like how its story tracks the start of a virus and how it branches rapidly, "Contagion" marks just the beginning of the fall movie season. And what a beginning it was. "Contagion," from director Steven Soderbergh, isn't satisfied with the trite and normal idea of setting a world catastrophe around a core group of people who somehow manage to save the day before anyone important is hurt or killed. In reality, no one is special or important enough in these situations. In layman's terms, everyone is in the same boat. Still, "Contagion" presents a dangerous environment that each and everyone one of us has to live in, but it's the variety of perspective in which the film really impresses.
Jumping right into things, "Contagion" centers around several distinct characters and the overall reaction of the world when an unknown virus breaks out, starts killing in numbers and rapidly spreads around the world.
The story of "Contagion" is carefully crafted around an array of perspectives, the most notable being the average citizen, the members of the medical world and the media with the middle of course representing a high power. In general, the key figures of the average is Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) and his teenage daughter as he, being immune to the virus himself and having had his wife and stepson already fall victim to the virus, struggles to keep his daughter out of harm's way. Yet, "Contagion's" most powerful images occur beyond his character, instead focusing on the average population as a whole. Capturing an astounding amount of emotion, Soderbergh highlights the feeling of helplessness that comes with the inability to control what's happened or what's going to happen. Whether it is physical images such as the near impossible feat of receiving help in overflowing, overwhelmed hospitals or the mental mind state of having to cope with the panic that stems not just from the possibility of death, but from the lack of knowledge around cause or cure, "Contagion" portrays the average human as trapped with no way out.
At the same time, a state of paranoia is steadily built. Gradually, people start questioning who they may have come in contact with as well as becoming more aware to previously harmless actions like what people touch as well as coughing and sneezing. As panic grows, so does fear, which breeds blame and eventually anger, especially targeting those to whom people look to for information, but can provide them with none.
In a wonderfully constructed tie-in, "Contagion" fuses average people's concerns with those in higher power (represented mainly by Laurence Fishburne) and the media (Jude Law as an Internet blogger/journalist). Trust plays an important role in "Contagion." The CDC is giving the public no answers as well as making no physical effort to show people that they are truly looking out for them. In the meantime, Alan Krumwiede (Law) claims to have discovered a cure and is attempting to reveal the CDC as frauds and money grubbers. It is this scenario in which Soderbergh perfectly compares the issues that come with being in the spotlight: either being a scapegoat like the CDC or not being deemed credible like Krumwiede's supposed "cure."
All the while there is the forgotten fact that these members of power are people too and must face the challenge of balancing the act of taking care of the world with the act of caring for those dearest to them. Ultimately, underneath the panic and chaos not only lay tough choices, but also sad truths such as not being able to grieve properly for the death a la the funeral homes refusing to take in infected bodies as showcased by one particular scene.
The style in which the subject material is presented gives the film its impact. Simply, it makes it frightening how things can come together. "Contagion" lacks central characters for a specific reason. The viewer's job isn't to form connections with the characters on-screen, it's to connect with the human race in general. The lack of background or screen time for the characters on-screen desensitizes the viewer from caring about specific, lead characters and instead focuses on the state of being as a whole.
In effective use of cinematic techniques, "Contagion" also makes the outbreak that much scarier by distinctly showing how little it takes to spread via rapidly edited images and reinforcing subtitles that mark the day number of the outbreak or the population of a city soon to be infected. The spread may start gradual, but becomes lightning quick. The film further represents the inability to understand the virus by way of an eerie score that almost seems out of place.
"Contagion" is scary both in subject matter and in how well it's put together. The film is an experience, one that depends heavily on the magnitude of its material and the fragility with which it's pieced together instead of relying on acting or writing. In the end, it's amazing how quickly society can become unraveled in a state of panic. Likewise, finding an equal balance of chaos and looking out for those you love is difficult to capture. "Contagion" does just that.