Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion," written by Scott Burns, begins on a state of high alert and stays there for the rest of the movie. Returning home to her family in Minneapolis from business in Hong Kong, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes down with virulent symptoms that, within two days, leave her dead and doctors with no answers. Soon the contagion spreads into a global pandemic.
This is not a movie for germaphobes. It's also not a movie for people who already have enough to worry about. So who does that leave exactly? As gripping as it often is, "Contagion" isn't really much more, in the end, than a classy zombie movie. Its real-world bona fides give it an immediacy, but the film essentially exists to put a fright in us.
And that it does. As the incidents of infection mount up, the contagion becomes a stand-in for everything from the Spanish flu epidemic to AIDS to SARS ad nauseam – not to mention weaponized biological warfare.
Soderbergh films much of the movie in a straight-ahead police procedural style, but he is not above trying to gross us out (unnecessarily so, I think) – as in the shot of Beth's autopsy. (I expected Hannibal Lecter to slink into the frame.)
The pandemic explosion summons the usual suspects. At the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers try to break the code of the pathogen. (Beth is designated as Patient Zero – the initial carrier.) Deputy director Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) tries to balance out the public need for full disclosure while also avoiding a panic, which, of course, inevitably ensues anyway. Pharmacies, stores, banks are pillaged. A renegade freelance blogger, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), accuses government officials of colluding with Big Pharma to cover up a homeopathic cure. Alan, who has his own smarmy agenda, is a character to give radicals a bad name. He even has a snaggletooth.
The best thing about "Contagion" is that, in a few instances, the people involved, especially the researchers, come across like human beings and not mere statistics. This is particularly true of Kate Winslet's Dr. Erin Mears, who is sent by Dr. Cheever into the feverish fray, and Jennifer Ehle's Dr. Ally Hextall, who actually injects herself with a possible (and possibly fatal) vaccine. (This is yet another movie, by the way, following on the heels of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," to feature monkeys as laboratory fodder. Chimpanzees should consider organizing a protest.)
Winslet and Ehle are so intense that they cauterize the movie's hokum. Less fortunate is Marion Cotillard, whose role as a World Health Organization physician devolves into a Chinese yellow peril subplot.
Also bereft is Elliott Gould, who, as a brainy Bay Area researcher who breaks the pathogen's code, is given far too little screen time. Matt Damon, mired in the role of Beth's woebegone husband, does his best to be the film's Everyman, but it's a thankless task.
Despite all the scenes featuring high-level government officials yelling at each other, despite all urban and suburban panic attacks, the strongest moments in the movie are often the quietest. "Contagion" picks up on how we might all treat one another if even the slightest touch could mean death. The irony of this film is that it's all about how we need to come together to conquer a calamity that pushes us apart. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language.)