This movie would have been AWESOME, if it were any good
Contagion (C-) has everything going for it. Big-name, likable star in the prime of his career? Check. Disaster that's all too possible? Check. Believable characters, well-crafted dialogue, solid performances, excellent production values, smarmy English-accented bad guy played by Jude Law? You got it.
The movie tells the story of a virus that goes global, killing millions of people. It's sad and scary and plausible, and you walk out of the theater going, "Goddamn, that would REALLY suck if that ever happened in real life. I should be sure to wash my hands more often."
Then you never think about any part of the movie ever again.
Just now, as I sat down to write this, I was like, "Oh, yeah, Gwyneth Paltrow was in it! I forgot." SPOILER ALERT: She plays the Outbreak Monkey. But don't worry, she gets what's coming to her. A clear subtext of this movie is that women who cheat on their husbands -- especially handsome, well-meaning husbands like Matt Damon -- die. Also, women who work outside the home. Also, women who go to casinos and carry on and have a good time. Also white women who shake hands with Asian men. Of course, almost everyone else dies, too, so maybe that isn't exactly the point the movie's trying to make.
But there's the problem. It's not at all clear what the hell the point of this movie is. Or why we're supposed to care about any of these people. I mean, sure, that one doctor is played by Kate Winslet, so we know we're supposed to care about her. And Laurence Fishburne is the virtuous head of the CDC, so we should probably care about him, too. But ... well ... we don't. Some stuff happens, and some people die, which is sad, and there are little moments of excitement and looting and martial law and so forth, and some other people work really hard to find a cure, which they eventually (SPOILER ALERT AGAIN) do. And it comes in time for Matt Damon's lovely daughter to slow-dance with her prom date in her living room, but not in time for anyone else they know, or millions of people around the world, so it's not exactly happily ever after time.
The movie starts with this very dramatic series of title cards that keep announcing what day in the outbreak it is. Day 3, Day 4, etc., but then the filmmakers realize they don't have time to show every single day of the thing, so they skip a bunch of days. Then the movie ends by showing us what happened on Day 1, which we already kind of knew anyway.
There are also some unresolved, and largely uninteresting, and at times needlessly complicated, side plots involving Jude Law as a rabble-rousing blogger and Marion Cotillard as a kidnapped World Health Organization doctor. Attractive people with foreign accents make any movie better. Except maybe this one.
I really wanted to like this movie, and as mentioned above, it certainly seems to have all the ingredients needed to be excellent. Unfortunately, it's missing something key: What happens in a movie has to matter to the audience. When I teach Introduction to Creative Writing to college students, we spend a lot of time talking about the difference between plot and story. Contagion, alas, is all plot and no story.