09 September 2011


Jennifer Ehle is shown in a scene from "Contagion."
The disease/pandemic movie has grown up. And with "Contagion" in the hands of Steven Soderbergh, we should expect nothing less.

During the past two decades, the director has swung wildly from populist fare (the "Ocean's" series) to award-winners ("Traffic," "Erin Brockovich") to obscure indie pictures ("Bubble," "The Girlfriend Experience") to everywhere in between and back again.

"Contagion" falls into the between category. Soderbergh employs a cast of Hollywood stars, but this is no "Outbreak." Rather, it is a clinical, procedural telling of how a disease spreads from a bat to a pig to one woman to virtually the entire world.

Starting on "Day 2," Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (Soderbergh's "The Informant!") mark the passage of time by counting the days and measure the threat by identifying on screen the population of each new location.

Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is patient zero, bringing the disease home to Minneapolis from Hong Kong and dying soon after. A similar fate finds her son (Griffin Kane). Her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), appears to be immune and spends the rest of the movie trying to shield his daughter (Anna Jcoby-Heron) from exposure.

As the disease quickly spreads and the body count rises, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization frantically work to determine exactly where it originated and develop a vaccine. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) dispatches a protege (Kate Winslet) to Minneapolis and, due to one questionable decision, becomes the fall guy when things don't go as hoped. A WHO epidemiologist (Marion Cotillard) takes the investigation to Hong Kong.

Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a blogger with millions of followers, spouts conspiracy theories, becoming a cult-like figure. But his motivation—his entire story, really—is unclear and becomes the movie's only major misstep.

The characters—there are many more than I have mentioned—function not to relate their personal stories but to tell of the disease and the reaction to it around the world. (Perhaps that is why Krumweide feels so out of place; his story becomes very personal.) The subject matter is so terrifying that characters essentially are not necessary to supply an emotional center; we do most of that work ourselves.

The movie covers a lot of ground despite a running time well short of two hours. Soderbergh and Burns avoid artificial thrills and allow the movie to unfold in a methodical, yet fast-paced, fashion. Short of a documentary, this is as realistic a depiction of this type of scenario as we are likely to see. And that makes it all the more effective.

Greg's Grade: B

(Rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language. 105 minutes.)

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