Steven Soderbergh would seem to have the right impersonal, clinical detachment required to make "Contagion" taut, gripping and seminal - the kind of issue movie that makes the cover of Time magazine. (Certainly the thought of a biological weapon such as the film's mutant bat-pig virus strain is deeply frightening.) Unfortunately, cinematizing even the most epidemic subject matter involves some choice of characters through whom to tell the story, and Soderbergh has created several uninteresting ones.
Matt Damon plays a Minnesota man whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and son die shortly after the wife's return from Hong Kong. (Paltrow's role is little more than an extended cameo - extended through a gruesome autopsy.) Damon has a terrific scene early on when, told by the doctor of his wife's alarmingly rapid passing, he replies, "Okay, can I go talk to her?" But as the audience's representative through the remainder of the movie, Damon has little to do but keep his daughter from any contact with her neighbor and would-be boyfriend.
Laurence Fishburne has a kind of corny part as a top administrator at the CDC who tells his wife to leave Chicago and come to Atlanta before Chicago is quarantined - and is somewhat preposterously called on the carpet for attempting to secure special treatment. Kate Winslet does some unexpectedly nice work as an American CDC field doctor who herself becomes ill and dies. (It's great that the script blurs the line between doctors and patients, but this fascinating subplot gets short shrift as the movie focuses on being a thriller.)
Subplots involving Jude Law and Marion Cotillard are true dead ends. Law plays a blogger who prates about how the government and the pharmaceutical companies are conspiring to keep extant cures from the populace, but the movie hints at possible ulterior motives on his part and it's unclear what Soderbergh's getting at. Cotillard plays an epidemiologist who, while tracking the origins of the virus in Hong Kong, is taken hostage in the hopes that she will be able to secure some of the first doses of any serum that is produced in time. These plotlines spin their wheels and go nowhere.
As for the virology itself, six-syllable words abound ("cross-reactivity" gets thrown around), but it may as well be hokum as good science. Too few concepts are meaningfully explained to give that wonderful feeling that (as with "To Live and Die in L.A." and counterfeiting) here's a movie that really knows its stuff. Because we can't get into the movie on the scientific level, and because the human-interest stories are not compelling, the movie feels both too short (because underdeveloped) and too long (montages of empty gyms, supermarkets, airport terminals prove more boring than terrifying). Its vision of the apocalypse is not as convincing as those of, say, "Miracle Mile" or even the Canadian import "Last Night."
I wanted to leave "Contagion" afraid to touch my own nose. Instead, I'm ready to jump into a public pool.