A sure sign that “Contagion” works as a first-rate thriller is the mass rush to the bathroom for frenzied handwashing after the show. That was the climate on the opening 9/11 weekend when everyone was already wired on high alert.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic,” “Ocean’s Eleven”), “Contagion” is an out-of-control deadly virus shocker, along the lines of 1995’s “Outbreak” and hordes of zombie movies. Despite a heavyweight cast, Soderbergh keeps things clinical, chasing the machinations of a monster bug (MEV-1) bent on quickly killing mankind by the billions. We chart the course by watching computerized charts, graphs, and impressive star-actors either die or survive, often spouting medical jargon while doing one or the other.
The first star to go is Gwyneth Paltrow as globe-trotting executive Beth Emhoff, who eats pork-contaminated moo goo gai pan in Hong Kong after shaking the unwashed hand of the chef.
She then infects everyone within her breath or touch, including a secret lover on a Chicago stopover, before arriving in the loving arms of cuckolded husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and her young son, Clark (Griffin Kane), back home in Minnesota.
Beth succumbs, shaking and frothing, with Clark following suit soon after. Mitch is miraculously immune, so doesn’t have to cover his movie-star face with a surgical mask, as he moves through apocalyptic scenes of looting, death and mayhem.
Trying to maintain order are Center of Disease Control and Prevention Deputy Director Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne); his colleague, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet); CDC Drs. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and David Eisenberg (Demeteri Martin); and World Health Organization Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard). Also, a private lab researcher, Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould), quietly saves the day and comes up with a cure, but protocol and politics prevent any action taken until it’s almost too late.
Besides the bug, Soderbergh provides a villain in the form of exploitive blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). A WikiLeaks wannabe, Krumwiede muddies the waters by spreading wild rumors of an allegedly effective holistic antidote, forsythia, on his website, Truth Serum Now, which results in drug store rioting and his securing a $4 million endorsement deal.
When all is said and done, it ultimately comes down to keeping your hands clean and eating Kosher. After all, a pig did the dirty deed.