It is literally impossible to talk about the Steven Soderbergh thriller Contagion without mentioning how culturally relevant it has now become. Immediately after news of an actual pandemic (COVID-19) spreading around the world hit the public, the film soared from #270 on Warner Bros’ “Most Popular” list to #2 (bested only by the Harry Potter films), where it will probably stay for months on end. The fact that the very similar Outbreak, despite being just about as bland as bland gets, hasn’t become nearly as popular admittedly is confusing, but it’s just as well, for Contagion takes almost everything that that film does wrong and does it better.
Whereas Outbreak was far too hammy and tonally confused to leave any real impact, Contagion practically seethes with anxiety and fear throughout. Whereas absolutely nothing in Outbreak was aesthetically or musically interesting, Contagion’s tinted, coldly clinical visuals and pulse-pounding electronic score fits the chilling subject matter to a perfect T. Whereas Outbreak surprisingly tended to shy away from the subject matter’s gruesome details despite having an R rating, the PG-13 rated Contagion has them pretty front and center, with an autopsy scene being so graphic that I’m baffled as to how the MPAA let it pass through with that rating without mandating a few edits.
Unfortunately, both films still stumble in terms of their screenplays and characters, and even though Contagion is still a whole lot better than Outbreak on both of those counts, it can still be a frustratingly uneven trifle at times.
OK, I get that Contagion is supposed to be (as Wikipedia puts it) a “hyperlink drama”, but would it be too much to ask for a bit more development from the various side characters that pop in at completely random moments? The film keeps insisting that I feel some sort of emotion for the surviving family members of the disease’s first two victims, but they are far too weakly written for that to be the case (I don’t know about you, but if I was playing a man who’s lost his wife and 6-year old son to the disease on the exact same day, I would probably try wearing an expression that’s different from “passively bored”, which Matt Damon looks in nearly all of his scenes), with an “emotional” ending scene feeling very, very forced and unearned.
There’s also a very Alex Jones/Andrew Wakefield-esque “conspiracy theorist” character that’s supposed to represent the spread of harmful misinformation in such a crisis, though his appearances are so infrequent and purposeless that I didn’t even figure that out until the film was nearly over. (I don’t think that this was intentional, so that’s not a good thing.)
So yeah, Contagion may fall flat when focusing on these types of people, but when it’s right in the middle of the tense, nerve-wracking race for a cure to this mysterious disease (transmitted from—where else?—China) it’s really, really compelling stuff. Even though he didn’t write the screenplay, Soderbergh’s main goal in making Contagion was to create an “ultra-realistic” pandemic film, and even with the above characters occasionally grinding everything to a shuddering halt, he still managed to meet that goal really well.
The paranoia, the claustrophobia, the panicking, the uncontrollable violence and mayhem—these are all things Outbreak inexplicably ignores, but Contagion captures just about perfectly. That alone is enough to make the latter film ultimately live up to its name, not just as a surprisingly above-average thriller, but also a horrifying reminder of the world we’re now living in. Hopefully, it won’t stay that way for much longer.