Director Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” a sleek, elegantly mounted dissection of a global pandemic, begins simply enough, in Hong Kong, with Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) under the weather and waiting to catch a flight back to America.
Once home in Minnesota, her nagging cough results in a swift, startling death (no spoilers here; Paltrow’s suffering is evident in the film’s trailer), which leaves her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), reeling. The ripple effect of an unknown, airborne virus is nearly as rapid. It’s not long before the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization are scrambling to solve the mystery as fear grips the populace at home (Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco) and abroad (Tokyo, Macau, Geneva) and the days march grimly onward.
Working from a extensively researched screenplay by Scott Z. Burns — no fewer than 10 medical professionals are credited with helping the filmmakers — Soderbergh, serving as his own cinematographer (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), wastes little time establishing a cool detachment, a patina of paranoia and an admirable footing in a world eerily resembling our own.
Rather than the hysterics fueling staples of the medical thriller genre (“Outbreak,” I’m lookin’ at you), “Contagion” remains calm in the face of its crisis.
That doesn’t stop the film from being a hypochondriac’s worst nightmare, though: Soderbergh, shooting in digital and relying largely on available light, slyly lingers on images meant to underscore the ease with which the fictional MEV-1 virus contaminates humans — the pole in a subway car, dishes washed by kitchen workers — and send viewers digging into their pockets for Purell hand sanitizer.
Apart from the mechanics of tracking, containing and treating a deadly virus (there are moments in Soderbergh’s film that border on documentary), “Contagion” also focuses on the politics of fear, as personified by muckraking blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). Krumweide’s widely read website slings any number of half-truths at the populace , among them the possibility of a homeopathic cure. His thinly sourced reports touch off a furor that will strike anyone who saw television footage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath as chillingly familiar.
Despite the ample, A-list cast — along with Damon , Paltrow and Law, Kate Winslet, Elliott Gould, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle turn up in supporting roles — “Contagion” sorely lacks a full complement of compelling characters. There’s plenty of star power, but, sadly, a dearth of fully developed parts; indeed, there are moments when it feels like the MEV-1 virus is more realized than some of the people working to stop its spread. It’s a credit to all the actors involved that the audience feels anything resembling empathy, given how lightly defined the narrative’s participants are.
Although “Contagion” definitively concludes, it’s difficult to shake the pervasive sense of unease Soderbergh has created. Part thriller, part cautionary tale, it’s a deftly handled work very much of its moment.
To mangle T.S. Eliot, the world ends not with a bang, but a cough.