Love him or hate him (or, in the case of the Ocean's trilogy, be utterly bemused by him), Stephen Soderbergh is one of those rare directors who, rather than leaving a trademark visual and narrative style, adapts himself to the subject matter as required. Don't believe me? Just go to IMDb, and have a look at his back catalogue. Ignoring sequels (oh please, for the love of God, ignore those sequels), it's incredibly varied, from sci-fi, to biopics, by way of heist movies and historical dramas.Only Peter Weir can claim to be as much of a cinematic chameleon. And now, Soderbergh can add pandemic flick to the list of sub-genres that he's mastered. If I were a director, I'd be green with envy at his eclectic back catalogue. As a critic, I'm simply impressed.
Contagion starts sparsely - there're no title cards, no opening credits, it simply opens with Gwyneth Paltrow in an airport and 'Day Two' in simple text at the bottom of the screen, and this simplicity is what pervades the film from start to finish. There's no focus on fancy cinematography, no impressive camera tricks, no complex motivations or back stories. The focus of the film is on two things - the virus itself and the effort to contain it, the human beings caught up in its wake.
If there is a single common theme to be found between this and Soderbergh's other films, it has the most in common with that depressathon drugs parable Traffic - interconnected stories, linked by character interaction. But here, Soderbergh capitlises on the idea of formite transmission as the connection between the story threads - the fact that what's linking them could be as simple as a handshake, or even that they grabbed the same safety rail on a bus.
Okay, I may have lied when I said no impressive camera tricks. There is just one, and it's a deceptively simply one - clever use of focus. Rarely are we shown the big picture - instead, we've presented with essentially what amounts to a series of close-ups, seeing characters facial expressions, the panic or resolve in their eyes, and most importantly, what they touch with their hands. Presented with the astonishing fact that the average human being touches their face a few thousand times a day, you'll find yourself paying more attention to a character's hands than to the medical jargon or panicked babbling that's exuding from their face, and this is entirely facilitated by Soderbergh's minimalist cinematography.
Obviously, this would fall apart without strong verbal and physical performances. Matt Damon and Lawrence Fishburne form the emotional core of the ensemble - the former a father who finds himself immune to the disease and attempting to defend what remains of his decimated family from the virus, the latter a put-upon CDC head-honcho who slips up and is forced to pay for it through the nose. Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and this reviewer's personal favourite Kate Winslet all shine too. If there's a weak link, it's two-fold. First Jude Law's spot on, but utterly confounding Australian accent. Quite why either a) he couldn't be British, or b) they didn't cast an Australian actor, is utterly mystifying. Still, Law does a good enough job, and it's only really a quibble that occurred to me after the film had finished. The second is that the ensemble cast is so very expansive that some characters never get a satisfactory amount of screen time - Cotillard, in particular, vanishes for the middle to late third of the film. But again, this only really occured to me afterwards.
To sum up - engrossing is the word that I would use to describe the film. It's being sold as a thriller, but it very rarely thrills, instead, it's incredibly intense, beautifully written (with a few zingers too: 'Blogging? That's just graffiti with puncuation!' Fucking OUCH!), and above all, entirely absorbing. It's not necessarily a movie that you'll enjoy, but it's an interesting 21st century take on an old chestnut that works incredibly well. Catch it on the biggest screen you can.