Steven Soderbergh's polar tendencies toward both mainstream entertainment and experimentation find a near-perfect medium in Contagion, which is both among the most thrilling and terrifying movies of the year and a meticulous, gorgeous use of brand-new digital filmmaking technology. Seeing the film blown up huge on an IMAX screen isn't entirely necessary, but it does allow the close-up shots on Soderbergh's RED Epic cameras to accomplish even more of the film's creepy-crawly, psychologically affecting claustrophobia. A star-studded disaster thriller that's also got enough talent to hit home, Contagion is satisfying and spooky and a total thrill to watch.
Contagion begins on day two of a disaster that will soon wipe out a significant percentage of the Earth's population, a disaster that's frighteningly plausible-- a virus, born of some strange combination of bat and pig DNA, that found a human carrier and spread from there. The woman identified as Patient Zero (Gwyneth Paltrow) travels from Hong Kong, stops over in Chicago to hook up with an old boyfriend, and returns home to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) before dying, suddenly and violently. Before long her son is dead too, and with Mitch mysteriously immune, he's left to team up with his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) to survive in a world that's quickly unraveling.
Elsewhere, Marion Cotillard plays a World Health Organization scientist trying to identify how the virus got started in Hong Kong, while at the CDC in Atlanta, Laurence Fishburne is the public face of the organization, Kate Winslet is sent to Minneapolis to figure out how the virus spread there, and Jennifer Ehle and Demetri Martin are the scientists in the muck of trying to replicate this thing and find a cure. To complete the requisite disaster movie all-star cast, we've got Jude Law as an unscrupulous blogger getting rich off the newly paranoid public, Elliott Gould as a doctor working on a cure, and John Hawkes and Bryan Cranston as more figures circling around the CDC.
Scott Z. Burns's screenplay moves quickly through all of these stories and more, and he and Soderbergh aren't afraid to drop some of the when something else interests them more-- Cotillard's character suffers a little from a huge jump in time, and Hawkes's character seems like more of a symbol than a real human being. But the enormous palette leaves Soderbergh more room to work on what he does best, allowing lingering close-ups, quick cuts of devastated scenery, or even moments of the blackest humor to economically show the virus's devastation while also giving the audience an icky kind of thrill. Contagion never winks at the audience, and its realistic premise could easily make this a PSA for flu shot season, but Soderbergh knows we're all entertained by being shown our potential extinction. Where Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay would use that knowledge to bombard you with spectacle, Soderbergh uses it to quietly, inexorably get under your skin.
That calculated, sometimes clinical camerawork helps Soderbergh avoid sentimentality in some really useful ways-- the death of one major character is handled with brutal efficiency and speed-- but the ever-reliable Matt Damon manages to sneak it in anyway. Damon can make the best claim at being the movie's main character, and he and Soderbergh work in tandem to build Mitch as the audience surrogate, allowing him moments of great humanity-- protecting his daughter nearly to the point of absurdity-- but carefully avoiding schmaltz, Damon calm and straightforward in the scene where he learns his wife has died, and Soderbergh cutting away the moment Mitch learns his stepson is gone too. Mitch would fit well into a more traditional disaster movie, but both Soderbergh and Damon make both him and Contagion itself far more interesting and unnerving than the genre usually allows. See it, then keep an eye on everyone else at the bathroom sink after-- it'll have you carefully washing your hands like never before.