This film has essentially one storytelling trick, but it’s such a good trick that it makes for very good viewing. A plague hits and heroic doctors and others race the clock to find a cure before the outbreak devastates mankind. The trick is that the film is shot in a po-faced documentary style and kills off its characters without any regard whatsoever for the fame of the actors playing them. It’s sort of like the shower scene in Psycho—where the biggest star in the picture is suddenly slaughtered—taken to a new level. The result in terms of narrative is that you never know who’s going to buy the farm. The more important result in terms of emotional depth is that it really impresses upon you the fragility of life and the flesh. I mean, if someone as famous as so-and-so can wind up staring through the plastic of a body bag then it could happen to anyone.
Director Steven Soderbergh keeps tight control over the sentimentality, going for deeper emotions: a sense of panic, frustration, invisible danger and heroism. He also shows a lot of restraint when it comes to disgusting special effects. Normally a film like this would insist on showing a lot of vomiting and bleeding to produce its horror, but Soderbergh understands that the effect is even stronger without such unpleasantness. Indeed, the more watchable a movie is—the less it turns the stomach—the more power it has to get inside you and grab you where you live.
Good cast—but I have to give a special mention to the wonderful, beautiful and underused Jennifer Ehle, who understands exactly how the picture works and delivers an absolutely mesmerizing and understated performance while surrounded by flashier names. If you’ve never seen her perfect turn as Elizabeth Bennett in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, check it out.
Two cavils: a rather goofy sub-plot concerning Marion Cotillard—who is now apparently to appear in every single movie made—is given short shrift. And a final scene meant to be ironic undercuts the terrifying sense of randomness that pervades the movie with a moment of idiotic environmentalist finger-wagging. Childish Hollywood nonsense spoiling an otherwise excellent moment.
Other than that: really good film. One of the best of a bad year.