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The person coughing is Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), the wife of Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon).
Fifteen minutes into the film, Mitch loses both his wife and his son to a deadly epidemic that eventually sweeps across country. His only surviving family member is his teenage daughter, Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron in her screen debut).
The film is the second thriller Soderbergh has made about the role of government when faced with a global catastrophe. The first was the psychologically and emotionally devastating Traffic, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Director in 2000.
But while Traffic had rich, complex characters, Soderbergh’s new film fails to establish personalities viewers care deeply for. A relationship between the head of the Centers for Disease Control (Laurence Fishburne) and his infected colleague (Kate Winslet) is well-acted, but not nearly as poignant as it could have been.
A sub-plot involving a blogger (Jude Law) who insists the drug companies and the government are involved in a vast conspiracy has almost no substance, and the relationship between Mitch and his daughter — which should be the most moving part of the film — is severely underdeveloped.
These problems could have been avoided had Soderbergh and his writer Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) been more interested in character-development and less interested in cutesy, clever lines.
The film’s multi-stranded plot certainly had promise, but Soderbergh failed to follow through on the depth of the concept. Unlike the two-and-a-half hour Traffic, which used the theme of global catastrophe to probe deep questions about modern society, the one-and-a-half hour Contagion feels like nothing more than a formal, money-making exercise at times. This has been a trend in Soderbergh’s career since his hit 2001 heist movie Ocean’s Eleven.
Oddly enough, however, this lack of ambition is also a blessing in disguise for the film. Although it certainly isn’t as good as it could have been, at least the film isn’t the bloated, incoherent mess most big-budget Hollywood disaster movies are (think John Cusack’s 2012).
In fact, viewed simply as a thriller, Contagion is relatively well-made. It moves at a lively pace, and gives the impression of knowing what it’s talking about when it comes to the science behind the epidemic. But it could have been so much more.
Less than a year ago, Soderbergh held a press conference stating he would retire in 2013. Since then he said he’s changed his mind. But if he’s intent on wasting his incredible talent on slightly above-average thrillers, why not just call it quits?
What’s most frustrating about Soderbergh during the past decade is that his films are never horrible, only relentlessly mediocre. They give the impression of being almost there. He takes fascinating concepts and gives them stylish, yet half-hearted treatment.
Contagion is more of the same. It isn’t a bad film. It’s another competent, stylish thriller fans will enjoy. But the film deals with lofty themes and, therefore, had greater potential than any Ocean’s heist movie. Had Soderbergh decided to take his job seriously, it might have been a masterpiece.
By Mike Presberg