‘Contagion’ turns into a big tease

Have you ever gone to a party because you knew all the cool people would be there, but then discover that they’re all shallow and no fun? That’s what “Contagion” feels like.

Steven Soderbergh is an acclaimed director who knows how to handle talented ensemble casts, as he’s proven with “Traffic” (for which he won an Academy Award for Best Director) as well as the “Ocean’s” film series.

In “Contagion,” he assembles his most talented group of actors yet. Academy Award winners Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard and nominees Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Jude Law and Elliott Gould all play major characters, but unfortunately, aren’t given much to do with them.

The films starts with great suspense and thrills as Soderbergh slowly reveals the spread of a global deadly virus that starts in Macau and eventually spreads to Japan, Hong Kong, China and major cities in the United States. An American woman on a business trip in Macau is the first to contract the virus and suffers its consequences. Through her interactions with various people, the virus spreads at an alarming rate worldwide, and the Center for Disease Control as well as the World Health Organization try their best to identify the virus, contain it and ultimately create a vaccine for it.

This first hour of the film is excellently executed, and I was engrossed, not only by the story, but by how Soderbergh told it. His films are never lacking in style, and his artistic flair really works in the film’s first half as he creates a palpable sense of danger and doom. The editing and pacing are crisp, and I especially enjoyed the synthetic soundtrack that added a sense of urgency to the scenes. Characters are introduced, then revisited at a sensible pace, and each of them appears to play an important role in the spread and containment of the deadly virus.

But then the film’s momentum comes to an abrupt stop, and all of a sudden, there isn’t anywhere for these great actors to go with their characters. Some are killed off, some are conveniently stowed away off screen, while others are onscreen but stagnant.

It’s as if Soderbergh spent everything creating the ominous mood of the first half, then had nothing left to complete the film in the same effective manner. Storylines are either ignored or given hanging conclusions, and the epilogue feels rushed and added on. A friend, who I saw the movie with, said it felt like a documentary, and I have to agree. Once the characters gave the audience nothing to care about, it basically turned into a film about government procedures on virus control.

I had high hopes going into this film, given the pedigree of the director and the cast, as well as the engaging trailer. I thought “Contagion” could be the first real Oscar contender of the year. Too bad it turned out to be a big tease.

“Contagion”, 105 minutes, is rated PG-13 and opens in theatres Friday.