Never have Steven Soderbergh's detached, clinical formal techniques been put to better use than in Contagion - in fact, the prolific director's latest is arguably the first time he's ever managed a successful synthesis of form and content. Soderbergh's filmic concerns have evolved primarily to deal with the ways in which he can subvert convention, subtracting much narrative interest for aesthetic experimentation. While these efforts are commendable, his aims have consistently been muddled,opting for bad-boy solipsism over genuine human interest or sincerity. The Limey, The Girlfriend Experience, and especially Che are direct examples of this specific miscue, diverting viewer (and his own) attention away from narrative coherence and structure towards merely a game of pseudo-intellectual semiotics, a deconstructionist act without sophistication, negating anything about the films that could be even remotely resonant. Contagion, fortunately, breaks this trend.
Beginning with a global-scale montage that could easily be mistaken for something out of an Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu opus, people are getting sick. Coughs, fever, vomiting - all of the images are streamlined for narrative economy, and clinical in the matter-of-fact, temporally-marked subtitles, providing city names and populations to suggest an absence of immunity - everyone is vulnerable. Various familiar faces begin to crop up. After his wife's sudden death, Mitch (Matt Damon) is left to wonder how he will keep his daughter out of the virus' path. CDC officials Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) quickly try and asses the most efficient path to vaccination. Dr. Erin Meyers (Kate Winslet) seeks the location of anyone who's come into contact with the infected. Journalist Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) suspects governmental conspiracy and tampering. Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is an investigator from the World Health Organization, seeking the cause of the deadly virus.
Though the initial premise sounds dreadfully similar to the condescending, offensive cinema of Paul Haggis and Inarritu, Soderbergh's concern is not to draw cultural parallels or make broad assertions about political hypocrisy. The most political figure in the film, Law's snarky San Francisco based journalist, makes claims and assertions that the film has no interest in commenting on - nothing is tailored to engage polemics. In fact, Soderbergh's detachment makes logical sense in this case, treating a global pandemic not with sentimentality or sensational humanism, but the appropriate degree of nihilism, the rising death toll as a mere figure of multi-media postmodernity, random in its reach, soulless in its grasp. Late into the film, military commander Lyle Haggerty (Bryan Cranston) announces the order of vaccine distribution, chosen in lottery form, drawing numbered balls from a machine. Much like the bulk of the film, there's little feeling to any of it. Contagion never stops to mourn its lost human lives, but that doesn't make it passionless. In fact, through subtle close-ups and moments of human pain, Soderbergh communicates far more humanist concern than ever before. The world he depicts is cold, calculating, distant, but he finally removes himself from that alignment, recognizing the banality of apocalypse without rooting for destruction. Almost Kubrickian at times, Soderbergh solves the misanthropic puzzle that's plagued his entire filmography by separating himself from the destructivist impulses of his Darwinian milieu. Cliff Martinez's kinetic score verges on sensationalism at times, but Soderbergh's restraint resonates more as a waking-fever dream, succinct in its humorless resolve, human life as a societal contingency of postindustrial isolation.