By Mat DeKinder
Contributing TFW Writer
In 1918 the Spanish flu pandemic killed roughly 50 million people, or a little over one percent of the world’s population. The new movie “Contagion” assembles a large, Oscar-caliber cast and calmly and coolly imagines the terrifying prospect of a similar disease doing similar damage, only now with hundreds of millions of world-wide deaths.
Break out the Purell, kids!
“Contagion” is directed by Steven Soderbergh with a quiet tension and a nimble pace as he zips us around the world tracing a relentless, invisible killer from Patient Zero to nearly every corner of the globe.
Soderbergh fills the first half of the film with dread, letting the camera linger on potentially contaminated objects like doorknobs or drinking glasses the way a gleaming knife or a resting chainsaw might be featured in the beginning of a horror movie.
With the possible exception of Gus Van Sant, no other director has been able to straddle the mainstream and the art house like Soderbergh. He’s helmed boisterous crowd-pleasers like the “Ocean’s 11” movies, Oscar bait like “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich” and quiet little indie films like “Solaris” and “The Girlfriend Experience.”
With “Contagion” Soderbergh empties his entire bag of tricks and keeps this lean, emotional thriller from turning into an unwieldy, clunky mess. It also helps when you only have to make a few phone calls to assemble such a stellar cast.
Matt Damon gets the closest thing to a lead role as Mitch Emhoff, whose wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) kicks the whole thing off by returning from a business trip in Hong Kong and promptly dying in the first five minutes of the movie.
It turns out Mitch is immune to the disease, but he spends the rest of the movie virtually imprisoned by paranoia as he tries to protect his daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) from getting sick.
The movie then shifts to those trying to control and defeat the disease. We meet the head of the Center of Disease Control Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and his trusted field agent Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet).
Additionally, World Health Organization liaison Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is trying to track down the origins of the disease while doctors Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould) race against the clock trying to come up with a vaccine.
Then as panic grips the populace and cracks begin to form in society, slimy blogger Alan Krumweide (Jude Law) emerges to take advantage of the situation.
Now while such a large cast makes “Contagion” sound like “The Towering Inferno” for the hypochondriac set, it plays its cards remarkably close to the vest.
Soderbergh lets the lines spool out just far enough to where you think you’ve got the movie pegged as just another disaster movie or forensic thriller and then proceeds to reel them back in again.
It takes a while before you realize you are simply watching a starkly realistic unveiling of the impact this not-so-far-fetched virus would have on the world, which is far more unsetting than an entire army of “Outbreak” monkeys.
The end of “Contagion” contains no true climax, which feels like a cheat or a disappointment until you walk out of the theater realizing that you’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Therefore the movie lingers with you long after you’ve gone home to the point you’re likely to find yourself washing your hands more often and checking to see how long you have to wait before you can get that flu shot. You can say what you want about “Contagion,” but you can’t say it’s not effective.
“Contagion” is rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language.