“Contagion” starts with a cough. It’s an innocent cough—similar to one that millions of people hear or experience every day. However, in "Contagion," that cough foreshadows something more troubling than the everyday cold. It marks the start of a deadly virus that spreads across the world in a matter of days, infecting millions of people.
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Near the beginning of the story, a mother named Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from a trip to Hong Kong and becomes sick in Minneapolis. Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) isn't concerned at first but when her condition begins to rapidly deteriorate, he brings her to the hospital. Soon afterwards, Mitch find out that Beth has died and learns that his son is infected as well. While Mitch seems to be immune to the virus, he watches firsthand as his family falls victim to it.
"Contagion" soon introduces a large group of characters who will be affected, either directly or indirectly, by the virus. Laurence Fishburne plays Dr. Ellis Cheever, the Deputy Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who is hired to create a cure for the virus. The doctor sends Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minneapolis to investigate the roots of the rapidly-spreading sickness. In the meantime, conspiracy theorist Alan Krumlede (Jude Law) becomes obsessed with the virus after watching an online video of a man infected with it. Krumlede starts spreading rumors online about pharmaceutical companies working with the government in a grand scheme to help the companies earn a massive profit. The film's cast is huge and also includes Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, Elliott Gould, and John Hawkes.
Unfortunately, few of these characters are well-developed. With such a large cast, it feels like the script was more focused on the virus than the characters who are affected by it. When some of these characters eventually become infected, it's difficult to care about them. With a smaller cast, this story could have worked a lot better because the filmmakers would have been able to better develop the characters early on. Instead, we're introduced to characters who die off before we even care about them.
Halfway through, the story also takes a dramatic turn when it starts focusing more on Alan’s theories. The first half of the film is strong as it shows the virus spreading and the work being done to stop it. In the second half, though, Alan seems to become a main focus of the story. His ideas feel like the rantings of a conspiracy theorist and slow down the pace of this otherwise interesting story.
“Contagion” starts with a simple idea: a deadly virus is spreading uncontrollably. But then overwhelms it with too many characters and a bizarre side plot about government conspiracies. If it had focused on the medical community’s reaction to the virus and the spread of the disease itself, the story could have worked a lot better.
Director Steven Soderbergh knows how to make movies with a wide range of characters and he showed off that ability in films like “Ocean’s 11” and “Traffic.” However, the screenplay written by Scott Z. Burns does Soderbergh no favors. If the characters aren’t well-crafted in a story like this, the film doesn’t work as it should and that is the ailment that infects “Contagion.”