Forget about vampires and zombies! It’s ‘social distancing’ that you need survive the kind of plausible global pandemic envisioned by Steven Soderbergh in this all-too-terrifying bio-thriller.
It begins on Day #2 with an international traveler. Headed home to Minneapolis for Thanksgiving from business meetings in Hong Kong, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) stops for a drink at the airport, nibbles snacks from a bowl at the bar and pays with a credit card. She’s feverish, coughing and jet-lagged when, two days later, her stunned husband (Matt Damon) finds her dead in the ER. Soon others are displaying the same flulike symptoms in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Chicago, London and Paris, and it’s obvious that a lethal virus is been unleashed.
Alarmed, the Deputy Director (Laurence Fishburne) of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dispatches a first-responder investigator (Kate Winslet) and assigns a medical researcher (Jennifer Ehle) to find a vaccine, as a World Health Organization epidemiologist (Marion Cotillard) in Geneva tries to trace the virus to its Asian source. Meanwhile, a popular, sensationalist blogger (Jude Law) claims the public isn’t being told the truth by the government and touts an herbal remedy called Forsythia.
Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“The Informant”) has concocted a complex yet reasonably realistic ‘what if?’ scenario about pathogens mutating, recalling recent worries about SARS, avian flu and the H1N1 swine flu, consulting with Dr. Ian Lipkin of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Dr. Lipkin devised the film’s disease as a corollary of the rare Nipah virus, which spread from pigs to farmers in Malaysia in the late 1990s.
Director/cinematographer Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”) keeps the tension taut with fragmentary, fast-paced, documentary-like scenes and terse warnings like: “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone. Stay away from other people.” The ensemble cast performs convincingly, given their underwritten roles, and the final scene of Day #1 solves the mystery.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Contagion” is a scary 7, realistically tapping into our most primal fears and survival instincts.