Steven Soderbergh's latest film, Contagion, follows the rapid progression of a fatal airborne virus that kills its hosts within days. As the fast-moving epidemic grows, the worldwide medical community races to find a cure, struggle to survive, and stop the gradual disintegration of society. The film is a good representation of Soderbergh's typical style of filmmaking. He weaves together numerous plots anchored by the central theme of how a contagious disease evolves into a pandemic, while quietly, inexorably getting under your skin. Contagion is chilling, even frightening, and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, along with Soderbergh, examines how easily an outbreak becomes a global pandemic that reduces society to individuals fighting for survival.
The story begins with a cough over a black screen, and then we meet Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), a marketing executive at a Chicago airport bar on the way home to Minnesota from Hong Kong. She thinks she has jet lag. When she arrives home to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), and young son, things escalate. Soon the boy is sick, and it quickly becomes clear that this is more than the flu. After a quick trip around the world as people with similar symptoms drop like flies -- a man collapses on a bus in Asia, while a model dies on the bathroom floor of her hotel room -- we meet Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) at the Centers for Disease Control, who works with a team of scientists, doctors, and health professionals in an effort to first find out what's happening and then how to stop it.
The film boasts an impressive cast, including Kate Winslet as a by-the-book field doctor working with Cheever, Marion Cotillard as a doctor from the World Health Organization who travels to China (where the disease is suspected to have originated), and Jude Law as a paranoid conspiracy-theorist blogger working to expose government secrets. We care about these people and their situations to varying degrees, and although each has at least some compelling aspect to their stories, each also eventually treads a fine line between authentic and clichéd.
Still, the story begins and ends with Matt Damon, whose character Mitch happens to be immune to the virus and whose wife was patient zero. Damon can easily claim that he's the film's central character, and he and Soderbergh work in tandem to build Mitchas the audience surrogate, allowing him moments of great humanity while carefully avoiding sentimentality.
Contagion is much more compelling when it shows what it takes to confront a huge, unexpected problem, not merely how susceptible we are to sickness and chaos. Soderbergh really knows how to manipulate his audience -- the shared sip from a glass here, the touch of a doorknob there -- to the point where it seems so real, so plausible, as to give the audience an icky kind of feeling. It's time to stock up on that hand sanitizer.