Parallel to a new outbreak of the Ebola virus in the mid-1990s, Wolfgang Peterson directed the thriller Outbreak about the possible effects of a pandemic. Now, after the swine flu scare in 2009, it's director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns' turn to toy with the idea of a worldwide pandemic and dramatize what could have happened if the H1N1 virus had been a more aggressive type than it turned out to be. Compared with Outbreak, which was basically a genre movie, Contagion is less conventional in form and style. It's a highly modernized version of Outbreak; an example of the so-called hyperlink cinema, in which rapid cuts between multiple storylines, characters and locations ultimately is weaved into one story. Regarding Contagion, the good thing about this is that Soderbergh presents an unprecedented multi-angled and objective account, aiming for complete realism in both his medical and sociological presentation. The not so good thing is that this extreme factuality strips the story of much of its emotional impact and makes the film somewhat sterile.
With that said, the film's objectivity also gives it an authoritarian quality, much in the way a good documentary would. And although Contagion at times almost seems to want to wash out the distinction between the fiction film and the documentary, there is little doubt that to the degree the film resembles a documentary, it resembles a very good documentary. Soderberh directs with an astuteness and confidence, and the film is thematically ultra-interesting from start to finish. Here is plentiful of food for thought for both optimists, skeptics and cynics.
The ensemble cast is an impressive collection of names, all of whom give good performances albeit none really sparkling. It was nice to see quality character actors such as Elliott Gould and John Hawkes spice up bit parts, and in some of the more important roles, both Matt Damon and Kate Winslet deliver good work. The only character I had a problem with, and that also was my main objection to the film, was the Jude Law character, which seemed unevenly motivated and felt a little too much like a plot device. He starts off as a paranoid well-doer, and develops into a conspiracy theorist, before ending resembling a publicity-craving cynic. If the filmmakers aimed for character development, he is thinly motivated, and if not, he is inadequately acted. Either way, he is just a small flawed piece in this otherwise impressive puzzle – which could have been brilliant, had Soderbergh made sure we cared a little more about the characters.