Silver Screen: Contagion ****1/2

Silver Screen: Contagion  ****1/2
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Silver Screen: Contagion ****1/2
Bryan Miller

It's been a long, dumb summer, and Steven Soderbergh's Contagion comes in like a cool breeze-- strange, in many ways, for an unnerving disaster movie that answers the question, "What would it look like if several prominent actors died of the flu?" But Soderbergh's latest feels like the first grownup movie to hit theaters in months. The contrast is even more exaggerated because Contagion isn't one of Soderbergh's cerebral arthouse experiments but rather a briskly paced, plot-driven thriller that just also happens not to be incredibly stupid. Imagine that.

Pacing is actually one of the key factors that sets Contagion apart from other medical-disaster movies while still working within the sub-genre's formula. The movie opens with a black screen and silence, punctuated by a foreboding cough, then flash cuts to a closeup of Gwyneth Paltrow over a blood-red title card reading "Day Two." Soderbergh, working from an excellent script by his Informant collaborator Scott Z. Burns, dives right into the catastrophe, wasting no time establishing the characters with a calm-before-the-storm preamble. Within minutes Paltrow's character, Beth, a philandering global marketing manager returning from a trip to Hong Kong with a layover for a tryst in Chicago, is on death's door, and her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is in a state of shock, even as he sees others getting sick around him.

From there the narrative fragments. Soderbergh globe hops, dropping in on a series of cities (listing the total population of each, along with the number of days since the infection, in more blood-red typeface) to follow a sprawling cast of characters as they interact with the mystery virus. Some are early victims, others are medical personnel led by Dr. Ellis Cheever of the Centers for Disease Control (Laurence Fishburne) and including CDC researcher and public-relations rep Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), immunologist Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), and a CDC headquarters janitor (John Hawkes). Military man Lyle Haggerty (Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston) is working with Cheever to determine whether or not the outbreak is a bio-terrorism attack, while a team of doctors (including Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould, and comedian Demetri Martin) work to understand the new strain of virus, even as skeptical and morally dubious blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) battles what he perceives as a series of government and media coverups of the truth about the situation.

Contagion continually refuses to play out as simple disaster porn, and much of the queasy medical details and violence are referenced or implied rather than shown outright. Still, Soderbergh, always a deft and observant filmmaker, does for germophobes what Spielberg did for ocean swimmers. The camera lingers on little points of contact: a sick child's hands on a doorknob, the touch-screen computer at a waitress station, handshakes and sneezes and water fountains.

While the suspense of a killer mystery illness are foregrounded, Contagion is not about the spread of a virus. It's about viral spread: the way information, rumor, and panic disseminate themselves; the way technology facilitates that dissemination; and the implications of all these elements in an increasingly interconnected society. It's a globalization thriller interpreted through corporeal horror, one where the virus is both subject and metaphor and the drama plays out on a scale that would dazzle Dickens.

For the mosaic to succeed, the pieces have to work individually, which makes the stacked cast so essential. Nobody gets much screen time here, so all of the performers must maximize their few moments and quickly convey a wealth of information about their characters. Damon, who plays the movie's most sympathetic character, becomes the surrogate example of all the families dealing with death and the crushing threat of potential infection as he attempts to keep his only surviving family member, his precocious daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron), away from harm. Fishburne is a powerful presence, too, conveying the kind of steady leadership we would all hope we'd have in such a nightmare scenario, although a decade of top-level blundering from Bush to Michael Brown to Obama suggests otherwise.

Not everyone comes out quite so well. Cotillard does a fine job, but her plotline, in which she is caught in an increasingly precarious spot in Hong Kong, is dropped for such a long time that it's almost a shock when Soderbergh picks it back up again. It’s one of the movie's few loose ends-- and also one of the bigger overreaches for subtext. There are a few such miscues, notably in the movie's final seconds, when a late plot twist echoes the themes a little too loudly and directly. But it's impressive that such a film, seemingly doomed to peter out rather than build to ultimate tension, does manage an impressive climax that gives us answers but (with one exception) not too many answers. That's all thanks to Burns and Soderbergh tinkering with the genre conventions enough to make the formula feel new, like some kind of cure for apathetic summer moviegoers.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter @bmillercomedy.