*** (out of four)
A woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) lies dead on an examination table. Her head has been opened up to reveal not congealed self-satisfaction and vegan muffins (like in Paltrow’s actual head) but evidence that a new disease has done some nasty work in there. One of the examiners asks if he should call someone. The other responds, “Call everyone.”
That’s when things get real in the chilling thriller "Contagion," which partially shot in Chicago and opens Friday. In the film, it takes just a few days for a highly contagious, mysterious illness—if science wasn’t baffled, there’d be no movie—to travel the world like it’s got 20 bazillion frequent flier miles.
The rapid spread of the illness baffles CDC doctors (Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne), while a freelance journalist (Jude Law) tells people that high-ranking government types are lying to them and Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon, always great) copes with the sudden loss of his wife (Paltrow) to a bug that’s about to bite into a big chunk of the human population.
Suffice to say my pesky cough and I felt like quite the offenders during the screening.
Director Stephen Soderbergh has star-loaded his cast almost to the point of distraction. Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan and Elliott Gould co-star. Even smaller roles are taken by somewhat big names: Demetri Martin plays a minimally important scientist, while recent Oscar nominee John Hawkes plays a janitor. (Hopefully the “Winter’s Bone” star is keeping a running tab of all the quintessentially blue-collar roles he’s played.) Yet this isn’t another chance for Soderbergh (“Traffic”) and his cast to preen about how blindingly huge their stars are. That’s what “Ocean’s Twelve” was for.
Crisply written by “The Informant!” scribe Scott Z. Burns, “Contagion” boils down global panic and what is probably more science-y talk than some viewers can handle to examine how easily a universal catastrophe can divide society into individuals fighting only for themselves and their loved ones. (Interesting to think about parallels to “The Social Network” in terms of people who, for various reasons, can’t come into direct contact with each other.)
The movie’s emphasis is a bit strong on the folks in the center of the crisis, glossing over the faceless masses who break into banks and turn a line for treatment into a full-scale riot. And there’s a certain familiarity to presentations of germ-infested bowls of nuts and bus handrails. “Contagion” is much more compelling when showing what it takes to confront a huge, unexpected problem, not merely how susceptible we are to sickness and chaos. Dr. Mears (Winslet) zings plenty of the public with a comment about how people will avoid oceans after seeing “Jaws” but shrug off cigarette warning labels.
Regardless, this threat and these characters feel all too real. “Contagion” is no remake of the ultimately cartoonish “Outbreak,” though of course testing is still eventually done on monkeys. The poor things are going to get super-smart and take over the planet if we’re not careful.
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