Ohmygod the germs, the germs! They’re everywhere! On our hands. On everything we touch! Credit cards, bowls of nuts on the bar, poles on the bus, our phones, our kids… Get the antiseptic!
Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns — who previously collaborated on the slyly witty The Informant! — go for plausibly realistic horror here: Contagion is The Stand without Satan stalking the Earth (though Matt Damon [The Adjustment Bureau] gets to be a bit Stu Redman–ish), a terrifyingly credible look at what will all in likelihood happen if and when a newly mutated bug to which we have no immunity gets loose in the enormous — and enormously mobile — human population. (It’s probably rather optimistic, actually, about the near collapse of civilization.)
Intriguingly, the nightmare begins on Day 2 of a planetary pandemic, when Gwyneth Paltrow’s (Country Strong) traveling American executive, on her way home from a business trip to China, already looks like hell. Is she Patient Zero, or was it someone she met on her travels who passed the virus on to her? As the killer flu she carries spreads exponentially, and oh-so quickly, in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Chicago, London, and beyond, doctors and scientists — including, in refreshingly no-nonsense performances, Laurence Fishburne (Predators), Kate Winslet (The Reader), Jennifer Ehle (The Ides of March), Elliot Gould (Ocean’s Thirteen), and Marion Cotillard (Inception) — rush to figure out what the virus is, where it came from, and whether it can be cured, or at least vaccinated against.
Contagion is foremost a detective story, with a science-positive bent here: there are no mad scientists, just intelligent, driven, dedicated people, and though there are nods to the inevitable questions about corporate malfeasance and big-pharma profiteering — mostly via Jude Law’s (Repo Men) muckraking blogger — the film focuses on the human impulses, for better or worse, of individuals in impossible situations. It offers some small, warm hope against the harsh reality: that as smart as we may be, nature is smarter, and without conscience.