I've seen a lot of frightening stuff at the movies. But nothing matches the terror of watching a hand dip into a bowl of nuts at an airport bar, and thus spreading death, in Contagion. Here's a scare-the-crap-out-of-you medical thriller about a viral pandemic that will have the immediate post-screening effect of causing a hand-washing stampede; the secondary effect of causing a dip in airline travel; and the longer-term effect of causing you to think, Forget it, we're all screwed.
With a new virus discovered every week (capable of spreading exponentially from one to one billion in 30 steps), we pretty much are. Directed with a fiendishly cool attention to realistic detail by Steven Soderbergh, Contagion begins with a cough from a working mommy named Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow). Beth feels kind of punk flying back from a business meeting in Hong Kong to her husband (Matt Damon) and young son in Minneapolis. At home, Beth quickly feels worse; then she disintegrates with fever, seizures, and brain hemorrhages; then she dies. This is no idle spoiler I'm spilling: Beth is the human face of the start of what will unfold as a global pandemic. (It's not the last we'll see of Paltrow, either, who does an excellent seizure, only to reappear as a vital presence in flashbacks.) Contagion spreads its compelling, insidious plot from Beth's death, working backward and forward similar to the way epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization do as they seek the source of each new viral mutation as well as its the antidote. If the upside of commonplace international travel is the ability to make the world feel small, the downside is that everyone, everywhere, is just a cough, a hand touch, or an eye rub away from worldwide infection.
The script, by frequent Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!), is somewhat swollen with Babel-like symptoms of too many button-pushing Subplots of Human Interest. But the big picture is terrifically well built, involving a CDC deputy director (Laurence Fishburne) responsible for coordinating response as well as the dissemination of information to a panic-prone public; the CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service officer (Kate Winslet) he sends into one of the first hot spots to work next to first responders; a medical researcher (Jennifer Ehle) racing to produce a vaccine; a WHO representative (Marion Cotillard) tracking global dissemination; and an independent activist blogger by the extravagant name of Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), whose aggressive independent investigation and reporting on his guerrilla-truth website have their own viral effects. The movie's attitude toward the bloke is telegraphed by Law's prosthetic snaggletooth and duck-like walk. The cast, be it known, is uniformly crackerjack: I single out Ehle, Law, and the absolutely indispensable Damon only because I've just disinfected my computer keyboard and can keep typing.
Contagion opens not with a bang but a shiver, as scenes of very ordinary, everyday life little kids in a classroom, singles at a bar, waiters and busboys doing the handling and wiping for which they were hired mask the catastrophe at hand. The movie ends not with a bang but more of a whew!, a few wan attempts at sentimental satisfaction, and an infectious thump of dread. I couldn't look away, and neither did I touch my face with my hands. B+