Review: ‘Contagion’

Jennifer Ehle searchs for a cure in 'Contagion' (Warner Bros.)

An above-average thriller, ‘Contagion’ does for germs what ‘Jaws’ did for water: Make you afraid of everyday fluids. Written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh, it suggests what might happen if a new, deadly virus broke out and quickly spread throughout the world.

How many lives would be lost before the virus could be isolated, identified, and thoroughly analyzed? How long to develop a cure, if any? How long to manufacture a sufficient supply of anti-virus? How would the anti-virus be distributed?

All of these questions are neatly packaged into a suspenseful mass murder mystery. The origin of the virus remains a mystery, though the blame is laid on Gwyneth Paltrow. On her way back to Minnesota from a business trip to Hong Kong, she sneaks in a quickie with her old boyfriend in Chicago before returning to Matt Damon, her second husband, and their son. Within a day she succumbs to the virus, and so does the child. The disease quickly spreads across the United States, China, and the world. Workers for the CDC in Atlanta (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle) and the World Heath Organization in Switzerland (Marion Cotillard) mobilize, trying futilely to contain the virus.

Jude Law, an activist / blogger in San Francisco, immediately calls ‘Foul!’ on the government, claiming that a home health remedy can hold the virus at bay. Elliott Gould, a renowned expert in the field, tries to help, but is stymied by the CDC. Bryan Cranston, head of Homeland Security, gives grave warnings to the CDC.

With all the plot points set up, the individual players go in motion. Damon, who is immune to the virus, is joined by his teen daughter, who had been living with her mother; they represent the worldwide community of hapless victims and bystanders affected by the growing pandemic. Winslet heads to the field in Minnesota, investigating what happened, how the virus might have spread, all while coordinating the set-up of care facilities that are temporary but may be needed long-term.

Fishburne represents the compassionate bureaucracy, frustrated by things that are out of their control. Ehle is the research scientist confronted by a massive crisis, doggedly working her through all the experimental possibilities. Cotillard flies to Hong Kong, where she is kidnapped by desperate Chinese people who fear that they are not being treated fairly.

And so it goes, a roundelay of fear and panic, accompanied by Cliff Martinez’ urgent musical score as the crisis spirals ever further out of control and millions of lives are lost.

It’s difficult for ‘Contagion’ to escape the whiff of the all-star disaster pictures that Irwin Allen produced in the 1970s (‘The Poseidon Adventure,’ ‘The Towering Inferno’), but Burns and Soderbergh avoid dipping too far into melodrama. They can’t avoid it entirely, and some of the plot machinations creak loudly from age and overuse.

Mostly, however, ‘Contagion’ purrs like a well-oiled, late-model luxury car, even as it delivers bad news to the celebrity victims of the mysterious virus. It’s a reminder that diseases don’t care about star power, and the film is all the more powerful for it.

‘Contagion’ is now playing wide throughout the Metroplex.