Cool rationale over tired melodrama, and methodical storytelling as opposed to cheap set pieces, are the key factors in Steven Soderbergh's docudrama-thriller "Contagion". This disturbingly realistic movie about a relentless viral outbreak may do for sales of hand sanitizer and surgical masks what anthrax did for duct tape and plastic sheeting in the early 2000's.
The movie opens with an executive (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning home from a business trip to Hong Kong, complaining of jetlag. She's dead within three days, patient zero in an outbreak of a swiftly and thoroughly lethal virus of unknown origin that quickly goes global. Scientists race against the clock to find a vaccine, authorities try in vain to manage the inevitable panic, and ordinary citizens struggle to survive the disease as well as a degree of social breakdown.
Much as he did with "Traffic", Soderbergh deftly intertwines numerous threads involving a broad cross-section of characters. Matt Damon stars as Paltrow's husband, who must take care of his daughter and find a degree of normalcy amidst the chaos and fear; Marion Cotillard and Kate Winslet are doctors in the field for the WHO and CDC, respectively; and Laurence Fishburne plays a beleaguered CDC administrator. Also featured are small but appreciable performances by John Hawkes, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould, and others.
Among the cast, Jude Law's character, a sleazy, self-serving wannabe journalist who fashions himself as a public crusader while milking the situation for his own personal gain, runs against the grain. As a commentary on the chaotic influence and questionable reliability of the blogosphere ("blogging is just graffiti with punctuation" says a flustered researcher at one point), he almost seems out of place given the premise. Yet questions he raises, about ethics and maintaining a free and open society while managing a large-scale catastrophe, are sobering.
Soderbergh, who has mentioned retiring but hopefully will not make good on that threat, maintains a detached, unembellished, procedural feel. He also takes pains to build a specialized form of terror in the audience, illustrating the innocuous ways a disease can spread so casually that germophobes will lose sleep for weeks.
On the down side, it's brisk 105-minute plot means "Contagion" moves too fast at times, and its large cast -- though interconnected -- gives us a lot of plot threads to keep up with. Some of the characters go underdeveloped and their fates don't always fully resonate with us. Cotillard in particular is underused, as her character's story arc is a bit anemic and ultimately feels incomplete.
The unglamorous nature of the production, may turn off viewers expecting another "Outbreak" or "The Stand" without the Stephen Kingishness. If it does, they'll be missing out on an unnervingly plausible cautionary tale that seems all but inevitable.