Steven Soderbergh is one of those directors I am endlessly fascinated with; he flows between genres as if it ain't no thing: from sex, lies and videotape to Schizopolis to Out of Sight to Traffic to Erin Brokovich to Bubble to Ocean's Eleven to The Girlfriend Experience to Che to Solaris to The Informant! to Contagion. And that's not even half of the films he's directed but already you've got low-fi indie, breezy caper, intelligent sci-fi remake, sweeping true-life epic, comedy, multi-character narrative, big-time Hollywood film and, now, disaster film.
As with Traffic, Contagion tells an overarching story with multiple characters; occasionally inter-connected but often not. Beginning on Day Two of the epidemic - i.e. we're already screwed - Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns track the spread of the virus and the growing panic and pandemic across the globe. The cast is suitably large and the science (at least to the lay person) scarily accurate. Gwyneth Paltrow is the first human carrier identified, bringing this extraordinarily effective virus to the United States from Hong Kong. She stops over in Chicago on her way home, thereby infecting the windy city too. From there it's all downhill for humanity. As the virus spreads, we are rapidly introduced to characters at varying levels of authority and proximity. Matt Damon, Paltrow's husband who is seemingly blessed with rare immunity and who provides a ground-zero viewpoint. Laurence Fishburne is the head of the CDC and provides a high level, government response with a vulnerable humanity. Kate Winslet is the CDC lead on the case in the States while Marion Cotillard is dispatched to Hong Kong from the World Health Organisation. Jude Law's sleazy, muckracking and conspiracy theory obsessed blogger provides a rough approximation of the media response. John Hawkes, Demetri Martin, Elliot Gould, Chin Han and Bryan Cranston all make appearances in supporting roles. Burns and Soderbergh pull no punches; no cast member is safe.
Whoo. Ok, so I hope all of that gives you a fairly decent idea of the basic plot and the cast! Contagion is a wide-ranging film, hopping to places all over the globe but managing to remain remarkably focused (and, unfortunately, American-centric). Not all the threads work as well as one another: the storyline with Law's blogger is the weakest link. Law plays him with an increasingly sleazy kind of charm; a man seemingly just interested in stirring up trouble and trying to make a buck. Something about it just doesn't click, possibly that he has a fairly small impact on the overall proceedings. Far more intriguing is Damon, a regular guy who happens to be immune and works hard to keep his daughter safe from infection. Through him we see Contagion become something closer to a sci-fi film, with society falling apart and the survivors looting what remains. Damon again shows himself as one of Hollywood's least showiest actors. He's a guy who just does the work, letting little moments shine and not needing to go for the big, obvious speechifying.
All of these story lines have their moments of impact and the cast is peopled with such gifted actors that every character has at least one moment to truly shine. And with a multiple storyline film such as this, you really need that to connect with. Contagion is an intelligent disaster film, positing a "what if?" scenario and working its way through to a logical extension of the thought. The pace just doesn't quit, especially in the scenes of CDC scientists rushing to find a cure for this previously unseen disease. But this is no "miracle cure to save the world" type of film, this is a "shit gets fucked up in a very real, very frightening way" kind of film. Come the end the world is irrevocably changed. You'll want to bring hand sanitiser.