Director Steven Soderbergh is a master craftsman at assembling impressive ensemble casts. From "Traffic" (2000) to "Ocean's Thirteen" (2007), Soderbergh has been a magnet for stellar Hollywood talent. His well-crafted and thought-provoking "Contagion" follows the same pattern, uniting Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and a handful of other notable actors.
And therein lies part of the problem. With so many characters to keep track of, it's difficult for the audience to get especially attached to any one individual. There is no real protagonist driving the story, rather a diverse and widespread swath of world citizens whose lives are affected by a fatal and fast-moving virus. But "Contagion" is also an intelligent, complex and frighteningly realistic disaster film with zombie-flick undertones and a powerful ending.
The film has a relentless start. Wife and mother Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) returns from an overseas business trip with a flu-like illness that rapidly spirals from cough to seizures to death. Beth's distraught husband, Mitch (Damon), is offered no concrete answers from the perplexed doctors and begins to wonder why he hasn't contracted the virus himself. Meanwhile, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and his colleague Dr. Erin Mears (Winslet) start a full-fledged investigation into the mysterious affliction as more fatalities are reported around the world.
Panic begins to take hold as the death toll rises, while Ellis, Erin and a plethora of health experts (including Marion Cotillard's Dr. Leonora Orantes and Elliott Gould's Dr. Ian Sussman) scramble to find a cure. The conspiracy-theory musings of popular blogger Alan Krumwiede (Law) hardly help the frenzied public perception. And few seem immune to the deadly virus that begins to claim victims at a furious rate.
The picture's pacing lulls at times as the narrative bounces around to the varied locales, and the scientific jargon can be a bit confusing. Soderbergh infuses his dramatic thriller with zombie-esque sensibilities (not a bad thing), including atmospheric music and scenes of desolation. The acting sways from exceptional (Fishburne and Winslet) to phoned-in (the normally reliable Cotillard virtually sleepwalks through her role).
There is greatness buried in "Contagion" that might get overlooked due to the sweeping nature of the story and cavalcade of characters. Messages about nature, health and morality are interwoven throughout, and the film's astonishing final minutes will leave some glued to their seats. Overall, "Contagion" offers a healthy dose of smart filmmaking while most of Hollywood is serving up cinematic placebos.