The world doesn’t end with a bang but rather a cough.
At least, that’s what almost happens in “Contagion,” director Steven Soderbergh’s intellectually stimulating new drama about the terrifyingly rapid spread of a lethal virus.
Before there’s even a picture on the screen, moviegoers hear a slight cough — really more of a throat clearing — on the soundtrack. Then Gwyneth Paltrow shows up — she’s the one who coughed and, yikes, she does it again — as a woman grabbing a bite at a Chicago airport on her way home to Minneapolis from a business trip to Hong Kong.
She is the first to become sick — soon, millions will die — during the course of “Contagion’s” dark what-if scenario. Playing almost like a hybrid documentary thriller, the movie looks at how both individuals and medical and political institutions around the world might handle such an epidemic.
Within days of the onset of Paltrow’s illness, similar cases crop up in Hong Kong, Tokyo and London. It doesn’t take long for the medical establishment to understand that it is dealing with a new, contact-borne disease whose deadly germs are spread between persons via coughs, handshakes, door handles and other contact.
As more and more people sicken and die around the world, panic takes hold. Ordinary citizens begin wearing protective surgical masks and anxious mobs storm grocery and drugstores, hoping to grab increasingly scarce basic supplies and anything touted as a possible cure or preventive measure.
Even as Paltrow’s bewildered husband, played by Matt Damon, struggles to understand what’s going on and cope, the global medical bureaucracy swings into action. Laurence Fishburne, playing a high-ranking official at the Center for Disease Control, dispatches Kate Winslet, portraying a physician, to Minneapolis to attempt to contain the outbreak.
Marion Cotillard, cast as a doctor with the World Health Organization, tries to zero in on where the epidemic began. Elliot Gould and Jennifer Ehle, as medical researchers, aim to indentify the virus and develop a vaccine. And Jude Law, as a maverick blogger, reports on the spread of the outbreak and hypes a cure he claims the government is failing to disclose.
Soderbergh (“The Informant!) deploys his large ensemble cast with pinpoint precision, effectively establishing who’s who and what they’re doing even as the story (and the virus) rush forward. But the movie has so many characters and is trying to tell such a large story that none of the individual characters have enough screen time to create much of an impact. The result: “Contagion” is a movie that engages a viewer’s brain more than one’s heart.
This is an ambitious film. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“The Informant!”) are working on a vast canvas. While there are plenty of current Hollywood films with extensive casts and locations, “Contagion” is one of the rare ones that is actually about something real rather than just superheroes or machine gun-equipped robots battling it out.
With its strong grounding in real science and recent medical scares (such as the avian flu and the continuing scourge of AIDS), the movie effectively and dramatically raises (and sometimes answers) provocative and pertinent questions. What unilateral protective measures should governments take? How fast might the rules of society break down? If a vaccine was developed, how quickly could it be put into production and who decides who gets it first?
By its end, the movie leaves a viewer wrung out and feeling slightly queasy, though thankfully that’s only a passing feeling, one cinematically rather than germ-induced.