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A dozen good ingredients with a lousy recipe.
I had very high hopes for contagion. A fast-paced "disaster" movie with an all-star cast including Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, and Jude Law - How could such a formula produce a bad movie? Simple. Too many cooks in the kitchen.
The basic premise of the plot is that a woman and her young son both die from a mysterious infection that begins spreading like wildfire, and the CDC and WHO scramble to find the cause and the cure before it gets any worse. Meanwhile, the woman's grieving husband attempts to protect himself and his daughter from infection, a freelance would-be journalist (aka blogger) cooks up a conspiracy theory, a WHO researcher is taken hostage by a man who wants to ensure that his village is among the first to receive the cure, an underdog doctor doing unauthorized research becomes the first to discover the vaccine... are you getting tired yet? Any of these characters on their own, or even mixed two or three together, would make for a worthwhile film. Unfortunately, they're all fighting for real estate in this one. The result is a veritable Brandsmart of plot devices, none of which is given the investment of time it needs to grow to its full potential. Adding insult to injury is the fact that there are a good dozen or so tiny plot threads that the film makes it a point to smack the viewer over the head with as if to say, "Remember this - it'll be important later;" however, that later never comes.
The coup de grace lies in the climax... or lack thereof. It's difficult to say when it happens, because there is no big "BOOM!" of a moment, no turning point at which the hopeless suddenly becomes hopeful again, no resolution for all the little subplots that have spent the previous ninety minutes getting all dressed up and ultimately having no place to go. The story ends on a quiet whimper and the credits begin to roll, with the discovery of the outbreak's source being of minor comfort - it does not save any lives, nor does it serve any purpose in the overall advancement of the plot. It's ultimately the proverbial bone thrown to a starving man, having already been stripped of all its meat.
Without even realizing it, cinema-goers have been trained by years upon decades of movie history to walk into the theatre with certain expectations - we want to know that if it's absolutely necessary for a "good guy" to die, that death somehow contributes to the greater good, or that if a mysterious evil (in this case, a rapidly spreading disease) threatens the population, the "good guys" will miraculously discover a cure before half the Earth's population is stricken. In the end, we are given none of these things, and I for one felt very let down.