Within 10 minutes of "Contagion", I was already catching myself touching my spotty face and letting out a nervous cough, and the slightest scare of paranoia reached me, and other audience members understandably. I'm about to get into a lot of things that I wasn't too fond of in "Contagion", some forgivable, but nonetheless troubling. All the same, I think it's worth mentioning the one thing that Steven Soderbergh does to perfection in this film, which is that central fear of germs and illness that is unavoidable in real life.
If Soderbergh's film has a main character, it's the virus to which it owes its title. From the first moment, it's about the spread of the virus, and how society and the several disease control agencies deal with that problem. There are several characters put to work in the film, and you'd be forgiven for forgetting one or two. Soderbergh packs "Contagion" with all star cast members, none of which hold total focus. Some of them are doctors (Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet), some of them civilians (Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, John Hawkes), and just outside players (Bryan Cranston, Jude Law).
I guess when you get to the heart of it, what makes that central paranoia so potent is the reason everything else doesn't quite compute as it should. Soderbergh set out to make "Contagion" less as a film and more as a medical case-study, and that's how he paints every single moment. Things are lensed in either clinical blues and greens or as if they were urine stained, and the characters are kept at a constant distance. While he keeps the effects of this outbreak scrutinized under his filmic microscope, what Soderbergh neglects to do is shine that same light on the characters.
It may be by design, but every single one of the characters put to work is paper thin. There are only a few characters imbued with an actual personality, and even then it's this sort of sweet protagonistic figure. It's up to the actors to imbue some sort of identity into these characters, and they don't really seem up to the task. Winslet, Cotillard, Cranston, and Paltrow are left as hollow shells by the narrative, as it doesn't require anything more of them. Hawkes, Damon, and Fishburne never go any further than being people just trying to protect their families.
The only actor who is allowed to be a standout is Jude Law, and that's mostly because his character has the most personality of any of them. He's a devious and ego-driven blogger who inexplicably decided to take medical epidemics as the main subject of his site. Law is the only able to really chew on his role, because there's actually something there to chew on. Matt Damon's character is the only one that audience really has some sort of emotional affinity towards, and there is a particularly strong moment towards the end with his character, but it's not Damon that makes it work. It's the fact that the audience has nothing else to grab onto.
And while I'm still dangling on the subject, even though the film sets out to show how events would really transpire in this sort of crisis, it's still trapped by a sort of convention. Soderbergh attempts to balk at coincidence, but it submits to them at many turns. It's somewhat convenient that the spouse of patient zero would be the only one immune. It's extremely convenient when the film enters into its third act, and it suddenly becomes soft and loses its edge. It keeps going on, intent on fully rounding out the solution to the crisis, but not the characters. Many are just left without resolution, but not in the right way.
I won't say this is a complete failure, because it's not. The one thing it's meant to do well, it does perfectly. However, it doesn't build on that enough. Within half an hour of leaving the theater, I was touching my face without apprehension or a second thought. The course the film chooses to go down in the concluding stretch nullifies the shock of what's happened. The dead are still dead, but it doesn't matter. You see a child die in the first 10 minutes, and you're severely freaked out. 90 minutes later, it's gone, like a short sickness you just shake off.