Pandemic movies can go one of two ways.
The virus — or whatever malady is chosen — kills almost everyone and there is no cure. Civilization breaks down into violent tribal sectors or some such negative scenario. Or a huge chunk of civilization is killed off, and violence and tension ensue. Then the cure is found and everybody lives happily ever after.
While there are variations on the theme — like Outbreak, The Andromeda Strain, 28 Days Later and Stephen King’s king of them all, The Stand — the plot lines of either version offer few surprises.
What does surprise is name stars and directors flocking to these things. Most are critical and box office bombs. Maybe end of the world pandemic movies pay better. Maybe.
Whatever the reason, Contagion has Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne and Jude Law doing the heavy lifting and Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, John Hawkes, Marion Cotillard, Elliot Gould and others grinding out smaller parts.
The director is the very talented Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich and the three Ocean’s 11 movies) who hasn’t done much since 2008’s bomb Che: Part One and Che: Part Two.
Soderberg and his screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) pick up the pandemic in day two when Paltrow’s character tracks it to the U.S. from Hong Kong. It’s Thanksgiving. By Christmas the disease has spread like wildfire and panic begins.
A hundred or so days later, and riots break out. They are somewhat fueled by Law’s blog. Government is helpless. Cities close down, riots happen, people are murdered by mobs, stores are looted, garbage and bodies pile up.
Soderbergh — who always does a wonderful job at building tension and working scripts with complex characters — does some things right. He often uses a terrific soundtrack to convey what’s happening in a scene rather than reams of dialogue. It’s effective. Even imaginative.
What isn’t imaginative is the story and the effects of the pandemic. Worse, the plot meanders through too many characters and leaves bunches of character stories up in the air. After plodding through a couple of hours of paint-by-numbers pandemic, you at least hope for some sort of surprise, or at least a surprise ending needing a quarantine like The Sixth Sense.
No such luck.
In the end Contagion is about as exciting as your last inoculation.
Mr. Movie rating: 3 stars
Rated PG-13 for violence, mature themes. It opens Friday, September 9 at Regal’s Columbia Center 8 and at the Fairchild Cinemas 12.
5 stars to 4 1/2 stars: Must see on the big screen
4 stars to 3 1/2 stars: Good film, see it if it's your type of movie.
3 stars to 2 1/2 stars: Wait until it comes out on video.
2 stars to 1 star: Don't bother.
0 stars: Speaks for itself.