“Contagion,” written by Scott Z. Burns, directed by Steven Soderbergh, 105 minutes, rated PG-13.
“Contagion,” the latest film from Steven Soderbergh, introduces audiences to HEV-1, a lethal infection comparable to avian influenza or swine flu that is spreading worldwide at an alarming rate.
With no cure in sight, the government begins to quarantine areas of the United States, allowing — perhaps indirectly encouraging — panic to run rampant. If HEV-1 is the primary threat to humanity, then fear is a close second.
From the script by Scott Z. Burns (“The Informant!”), “Contagion” is both a germaphobe’s pre-apocalyptic nightmare and an ensemble drama focusing on individuals whose lives are altered (or ended) by the infection.
Matt Damon is a family man whose wife is one of the first victims of HEV-1; Jude Law is the blogger who first reports (exploits?) the outbreak; Laurence Fishburne is a doctor heading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s investigation; and Marion Cotillard is a World Health Organization official held captive in a Chinese village as leverage for first dibs on any potential vaccine.
The cast also includes Kate Winslet, John Hawkes, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Ehle. Needless to say, it’s one of the best collections of actors all year.
Through each character, Soderbergh and Burns chronicle the spread of HEV-1, spanning perspectives from victims to doctors on the front-line. They’re all bound by a survivalist instinct, and it’s that same sense of desperation and paranoia that will draw audiences in.
There’s a morbid fascination in watching humankind, seemingly safe in its cocoon of stability, brought to its knees by a disease borne from pigs, bats or birds. But it’s not really the pigs, bats or birds we’re concerned about — it’s our own touch that frightens us. Soderbergh places emphasis on every characters’ bare-handed movement, from grabbing doorknobs to handshakes, creating an uneasiness in everyday contact that is critical to the film’s success.
The ending wraps up “Contagion” a little too neatly, providing answers to questions that were better left unknown. As the origins of swine flu and bird flu are, at best, vague to most viewers, HEV-1 should have remained that way as well.
But with the H1N1 scare still fresh in audiences’ minds, Soderbergh’s masterstroke is that “Contagion” feels less like fiction and more like the inevitable future. Someday, a virus like HEV-1 may catch humankind off-guard. “Contagion” asks us: What then?