Just because a threat in a movie feels real doesn't mean you have the authority to supersede tension. For the first hour, Contagion is a finely crafted thriller, but every scene loses tension as it progresses. I actually can't see this film making the light of day without its star-studded cast (including Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, John Hawkes, Demetri Martin, and Elliot Gould).
Steven Soderbergh knows how to tempt an actor into working with him. He's an Oscar-winning director, his movies usually make money so your paycheck tends to be hefty, and most of the time you're only in a small amount of scenes. Easy work. Good money. Perfect fit, right?
Well, just because you have great actors doesn't mean it can cover the holes in a lousy screenplay. The film opens on "Day 2" in Hong Kong with a close-up of a sick woman (played by Gweneth Paltrow) waiting to board a flight back to America. She looks sick. Very sick. As if she is a walking plague. She gets home, hugs her kids, wakes up the next morning, and collapses into a terrifying seizure. I think it's safe to say that there's no spoiler here to know that she doesn't make it. It's the start of the movie. The secret here is why she got sick and how contagious she really is. When people start dropping all over the world, I think we found our answer.
What's spreading this horrible virus? It's basically the same scenario that's been seen before, especially in the action TV-series 24, where there is an outbreak of a rare disease that causes fatal symptoms the moment you are touched by someone who is infected. In 24, the story had way more characters to care about with a threat of more than just an outbreak. It was a tangled web of espionage and disaster. Contagion seemed to be written by someone who went out for a bite to eat, got sick later that night, and woke up to write a screenplay about his experience. It's a real fear, sure, but without memorable characters and a clear-cut plot, there's no difference between this and a public service announcement about swine flu.
Soderbergh has a unique visual style that is always present in his movies. His music choices are always eclectic and does a fine job at building tension. Yet Contagion has a hard time deciding between being a full-out disaster movie and a sad drama about the deaths of a certain few. It lands somewhere between mild suspense and stiffness. The Social Network made a movie about facebook more intense than Contagion does with a worldwide epidemic. So clearly it's not the subject matter to blame, but something a bit more internal.