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Gwyneth Paltrow in Contagion.

Don't eat the nuts


“I thought it was supposed to be a horror movie,” several viewers were heard complaining on their way out of the preview screening of Contagion. You can forgive them if expectations were based on seeing the TV commercials, which are heavy on the pulse pounding stuff: scientists and officials looking worried, scenes of mass graves being filled while all-American Matt Damon races about doing presumably heroic stuff.

And even if they hadn’t seen the trailers, the title is likely to make you think of a horror movie. Movies about rapidly spreading infectious diseases almost inevitably have the victims rising from the dead and feasting on the flesh (or at least the jugular veins) of the living.

Of course you can’t read a film’s credits on a TV ad—they’re too tiny to decipher, and flash by to fast anyway—but if could, you would have seen that Contagion was directed not by disaster specialist Roland Emmerich but by Steven Soderbergh. It’s not that he hasn’t pulled some surprising career moves in the past—who wasn’t surprised when he went from sex, lies and videotape and Kafka to Erin Brockovich and Oceans 11? What with bouncing between Hollywood blockbusters and bizarre indie productions, occasionally proclaiming his retirement from the job altogether, it’s hard to know what to expect Soderbergh to produce from film to film.

I was expecting Contagion to be a thriller in the mold of the Oceans films—not jokey, but genre work done with some intelligence and respect. Turns out its drier than that. The film in the Soderbergh canon it most resembles is Traffic, with its multiple plot threads around a common theme and diverse cast of characters.

Starting on Day Two (which is as close as this gets to a joke), Contagion tracks the spread of a previously unknown disease from initial infection to pandemic. If you’ve ever read warnings about the things you shouldn’t do to avoid the flu, you’ll recognize them in the opening minutes: a dish of peanuts on a bar, subway straps, the handle of a restroom door. Do you know what the last hand that last touched those last touched?

In an era of global transit the virus, which comes to be known as MEV-1, steadily spreads around the continent. It’s not a horrible disease to look at—no patients spitting blood or foaming at the mouth or (in the extreme variations of this genre) exploding. Victims get sweaty, dizzy, have convulsions, and, in a few days, die.

The first half of the film travels around the world with dizzying speed establishing patterns in different cities. Before long, it settles into several major stories: the efforts of doctors (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to find a cure under political constraints; the struggles of a father (Matt Damon) who is immune to MEV-1 to care for his teenage daughter in Chicago after it is quarantined; a World Health Organization doctor (Marion Cotillard) dealing with misinformation and fear in China; a blogger (Jude Law) who stirs up panic and claims to have found a miracle cure.

Working from a script by his The Informant! collaborator Scott Z. Burns, Soderbergh moves rapidly among these threads. Other familiar faces— Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston, Elliott Gould, Demetri Martin, Sanaa Lathan, and, as himself, Sanjay Gupta—are on hand to keep our interest, though they’re hardly necessary: The more than plausible story is more than sufficient for that.

Still, Contagion left me wanting, and that’s probably inevitable. A story about a pandemic that kills tens of millions of people opens up many more “what if” questions than a single film could ever satisfy. Everything that happens here answers one of those questions, but every answer sparks a handful of other questions that are left to our imagination. That’s why other serious films on the topic—Blindness, The Andromeda Strain, even Outbreak—limited their perspective to a small corner of such a disaster.

And despite the warning in the closing credits that “It’s Not If, But When,” Soderburgh isn’t out to scare us into action: you don’t leave the movie with the sense of hopeless depression you remember from cautionary movies like The Day After or The War Game, a little of which might have been a good thing. Contagion is an engrossing movie that will keep you glued to your seats for 100 minutes, but you probably won’t remember much about it in a week.

Watch the trailer for Contagion

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