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Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” Is Suddenly The Movie Of The Moment (Nearly A Decade Later)

There are two schools of thought when it comes to viewing Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion here in the mess that is 2020. On the one hand, you have people who have flocked to the movie in recent days. On the other hand, you have those who think that’s an absolutely terrible idea, one that unnecessarily upsets you and causes extra anxiety in a time of crisis. Honestly, both are true, and that’s part of why it works so well. Directing a script by Scott Z. Burns, Soderbergh put forth a riveting depiction of a viral outbreak. Today, we’ll dive in and give it a new review, as seen with a modern lens.

For those who don’t remember, the film is a drama about what a global pandemic could be like in the modern world. This was the official plot synopsis from Warner Bros. at the time: “Contagion follows the rapid progress of a lethal airborne virus that kills within days. As the fast-moving epidemic grows, the worldwide medical community races to find a cure and control the panic that spreads faster than the virus itself. At the same time, ordinary people struggle to survive in a society coming apart.” The plot strands look at how the virus impacts every aspect of society. The closest thing to an A plot concerns the death of Patient Zero Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), her husband Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), who’s immune, and his daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron), as the latter two try and navigate a world falling apart. B plots include the various health and medical professionals trying to figure out the disease, in the hopes of curing it. Those characters include Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould), and more. At the same time, conspiracy theorist Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is spreading lies and trying to profit. Sound familiar? Soderbergh directs a script from Burns (Soderbergh also handles the cinematography, under his pseudonym Peter Andrews), with music from Cliff Martinez. The cast includes the likes of Enrico Colantoni, Bryan Cranston, John Hawkes, Sanaa Lathan, and Demetri Martin, among others.

Designed like a disaster movie, Soderbergh brilliantly shows how society would both crumble and survive. The best and worst of humanity comes out. Some people show their true colors. It’s vividly portrayed and haunting in how matter of fact it all is. Then again, that’s exactly what we’ve seen happening right now, albeit to a lesser and far less deadly extent. Every moment seems plausible, by design. This isn’t making any giant leaps for movie magic. Even when something more character driven, like Matt Damon’s character finally doing something to ease his daughter’s frustrations, is handled with a deft touch. Contagion also happens to feature one of the filmmaker’s best ensembles. In addition to Damon, Watching Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, Laurence Fishburne, Elliott Gould, John Hawkes, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Winslet (just to name the bigger players) take the most realistic approach to the characters, it easily helps set this one apart.

Contagion is obviously having a moment. Here in 2020, the flick has gone from being a riveting cautionary tale to an absolutely horrifying warning from Burns and Soderbergh that was ignored. Part of its genius is not only how realistic it is, but how it follows so many different strands with equal amounts of attention. Additionally, the one weakest element back during its initial release, which was Law’s evil blogger, now just seems as though someone like Alex Jones studied Law’s Alan Krumwiede for ideas. Go figure that that would be the element that most resembles our current reality, right?

Basically, Contagion is now the timeliest film there is. Whether that makes it too disturbing to watch or a must see, that’s up to you. Regardless of whether you think you’re up for a revisit, it remains a fantastically well done move, easily one of Soderbergh’s most underrated efforts…

If you dare, Contagion is available to rent/stream on various platforms!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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