There’s a scene in the first third of this almost pointless disaster film where one of the main characters, a big name, suddenly dies. Later, the film cuts suddenly to her autopsy, where doctors cut her brow, peel forward her face, and after an icky sawing sound we see them peer into her skull, apparently gaining the ability to see what’s inside the victim’s head. (Talk about peeling back the layers of your character.) It’s a bat pig virus — I know, huh? — and, like television, it’s rotted her works. Maybe, you think, director Steven Soderbergh is having a joke, trying to top Hitchcock who killed Janet Leigh off in the first reel of Psycho. But, for sure, this un-scary horror film (a zombie movie without zombies) only makes sense when considered as a grotesque joke.
Its darkest humor lies in the star-obsessed casting. Throwaway roles go to the most respected of stars, like the virtually interchangeable Kate Winslet and Gwyneth Paltrow, who both end badly. Each new scene seems to bring another megastar onstage like some weird variety show; Laurence Fishburne, Elliott Gould, and Marion Cotillard play disease-control authorities with all the vitality of stuffed animals. Then there are the odd comedians like Bryan Cranston and Comedy Central’s Demetri Martin; both playing stuffed uniforms. Some rise above: Jude Law is a convincing smarmy journalist and Jennifer Ehle glows as a dead-earnest idealist. Matt Damon cries a lot, and bad writer Sanjay Gupta plays himself.
But the biggest joke is the film itself. It’s obviously an attempt to imitate those huge, star-driven 1970s disaster films like The Towering Inferno. But Contagion lacks their compelling melodrama and any cinematic hook. (People coughing hardly qualify as spectacle, even when frothy discharge gets involved.) You might argue lessons must be learned: the public’s right to know, say, or even our pathetic powerlessness in an indifferent universe. But the film never seems terrifying beyond food riots and trash-filled streets — and we already have those. Uncrowded airports actually seem like an upside to a worldwide epidemic. Ultimately, it’s just another parade of familiar faces scaring us silly to pass the time. You know, kind of like the nightly news.