Contagion is trying hard to be THE virus pandemic movie, much in the same way that Jurassic Park was THE dinosaur movie, or Jaws was THE shark movie, or Powder was THE moody albino with electromagnetic powers movie. And, while Contagion hasn't quite caught on to become a pop culture phenomenon like those other three films (uh, two out of three films), its high profile and general quality should be enough to at least give it the duke over 'Outbreak.' Tough break, Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and various apes.
I'm a sucker for ensemble films that present a world, give you the 'rules' of the world and then explore various scenarios that would naturally take place within this new reality. In Contagion's case, a deadly airborne virus is killing millions worldwide and causing a global panic. There are a lot of ways you can go with this story, but Contagion basically touches on all of them, showing several different vignettes featuring different characters. Not all of the vignettes are knockouts; Marion Cotillard's storyline wasn't that impressive, but maybe I just expected more from it since Cotillard is my favourite actress. That said, the sheer scope of the movie more than makes up for any shortcomings in respective parts.
It's stunning that Steven Soderbergh directed the Ocean's 11 trilogy yet this film, by far, is his most star-studded cast. Here's the list of Oscar nominees alone in Contagion: Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Elliott Gould, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, John Hawkes and Matt Damon. Then you have beloved TV stars like Bryan Cranston*, Enrico Colantoni and Demetri Martin, and finally, there's Jennifer Ehle who basically steals the whole movie. Ehle is on some goofy-ass CBS drama this year and she looks a LOT like Meryl Streep, so maybe this qualifies her for both categories?
* = Not that Cranston isn't a great actor and can make me believe in him playing another character, but I've gotten so used to him on 'Breaking Bad' that it's now suddenly a bit jarring to see him in roles other than Walter White. Then again, it's an easier transition because in non-Walt roles, Cranston has hair and no goatee.
As you'd expect from this crew, there isn't a bad performance in the bunch. Law stands out just because you're never quite sure where his character his going until it suddenly hits you in the face. (I'm trying to avoid spoilers here.) That said, I feel like the star is the premise and Soderbergh's direction. Contagion would have been just as effective, if not even more effective, had the cast been full of no-names. Of course, then Soderbergh probably doesn't get the budget necessary for a picture of this scope, but still.
A word about the last scene. I don't think it ruins too much to reveal that the final scene in the movie shows how the virus got into the human population, though I won't go into detail because hmm, spoilers. It's par for the course in such an unsettling film that this deadly virus that wipes out millions and causes one of the great panics in (this universe's) history is first transmitted in such a banal way. I'd be interested to know if the ending was originally the actual ending, or if it was an editing/directorial decision to slot the scene from the beginning of the movie to the end, since it really packs a creepy wallop as you're leaving the theatre. Also, the ending is yet another reason why I don't take many pictures on my camera phone. I'm just trying to prevent a worldwide catastrophe so that's why I don't have many pictures of my new apartment, MOM.
Final comic note: virus movies are great for smart-ass comments in theatres. As folks were filing out of Contagion, someone coughed, which lead to one clever wit yelling "Oh no, we're all gonna die!" Got a nice laugh. It puts me in mind of the greatest audience comment I've ever experienced. During 'I Am Legend,' they have that scene of Emma Thompson talking about how she's engineering a strain of the measles meant to fight cancer, followed by an immediate cut to a desolate Manhattan. As if on cue, the guy in front of us in the theatre yelled "Uh oh, they couldn't cure the measles!" Doesn't sound great on paper, but the timing was perfect and it just cracked the entire audience up. Probably the highlight of that movie aside from the scene where Will Smith strangles his dog, then asks "How come he don't want me, man?"