Contagion is a horror movie that succeeds because its horrors are so easily imaginable and so believably rendered. In Steven Soderbergh's quietly terrifying new film, a deadly virus slowly begins to decimate the world’s population, easily spread by human contact and surfaces. Victims come down with a hacking cough and a splitting headache, and within 24 hours they’re dead, a smear of white foam crusted over their mouths. (The virus originates in Asia; Contagion is part of a long tradition of films and novels [ex. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man; Bram Stoker’s Dracula] in which plague and pestilence come from the east.) While the CDC sets to work finding a cure, opportunists (like Jude Law’s renegade journalist) look to capitalize on the public’s fears, and ordinary folks (like Matt Damon’s suddenly widowed father) barricade themselves and their children inside their homes. Before long, shops and pharmacies are being looted, and the streets are littered with garbage and bodies.
Soderbergh, with his characteristically sleek visual style, presents all of this with an air of clinical precision; the aesthetic of the film is so cool it’s chilling. It’s a kind of riff on the star-studded disaster epics of the 1970s, like Airport and Earthquake: the cast here includes Damon, Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, and Kate Winslet, and the percussive, ominous electronic score by Cliff Martinez calls to mind the work of Giorgio Moroder and Vangelis on films like Midnight Express and Missing.
Contagion most resembles Traffic (2000), Soderbergh's intelligent, cold-eyed study of the so-called war on drugs, which spanned multiple countries and juggled nearly a dozen major characters. Sadly, however, Contagion doesn’t involve us in its characters’ lives like that film does; Soderbergh should have re-teamed with screenwriter Steven Gaghan (many of the other major players from Traffic appear behind the camera, including Martinez, editor Stephen Mirrione, and Soderbergh himself as cinematographer, under the name Peter Andrews). The human figures in Contagion are flat, uninteresting, and Soderbergh seems frankly uninterested in telling their stories. Far more compelling is the story of the virus itself—the movie’s real star. As we’re made to see how vulnerable our bodies and our societal structures are, we realize how easily they might be ravaged by a force beyond human control. And that’s the essence of an effective horror movie. When Contagion attempts to make social and political points, it deflates; when it tries, simply and pointedly, to scare the hell out of us, it works.