Preying upon left over recollections of the H1N1 pandemic hysteria, director Steven ("Oceans 13") Soderbergh crafted "Contagion" into a scientifically plausible viral thriller. He avoids the military "nuke it" option that infects many biological outbreaks, instead, concentrating on an unstoppable mutation that has multiple global hot spots.
As the rush for a vaccine intensifies, Soderbergh rotates between epidemiological experts and mounting glimpses of panic in the streets. He wisely sticks to a compact empathetic cast that face self-reliance during their lengthy efforts to stop the spread.
Written by Scott ("An Inconvenient Truth") Burns, the respiratory marauder's introduction comes through plane passengers developing a raspy cough. The mass of invisible germs spreads quickly to innocent road warriors, forcing the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization into worst case scenario mode.
The CDC Deputy Director (Laurence Fishburne) sends his top field researcher (Kate Winslet) to Minneapolis, where the bug entered the U.S. and in a matter of days claims casualties. Simultaneously, the World Health Organization sends their rising star (Marion Cotillard ) to Hong Kong where the initial animal/human transmission may have taken place.
Matt Damon plays a shaken dad who loses both his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and son. After medical scrutiny deems him virus free, he's on the offense to prevent his teen daughter from acquiring the deadly airborne super-flu. Reminiscent of the intimate Cold War avoid-the-radiated sub-genre ("Panic in Year Zero,"1962), Damon struggles to keep the teen restrained from her disease-free boyfriend and the family from succumbing to roving would-be intruders.
*Warning: Possible spoilers
Unlike most catastrophe-in-the-making flicks, "Contagion" amplifies fear, through the vaccine creation time lag ("it kills every cell it grows in"), yet leaves a caveat of unexposed. Those numbers stay in the majority, thus, detouring the most favored viral cliche - a world overrun by flesh eating zombies ("Omega Man," "Night of the Living Dead", "Zombieland," "The Road"). Instead, it's a "28 Days" and "28 Weeks Later" survival roulette on a scale that a vaccination lottery is required (actually, real life would be first responders, health care workers, the chronically ill - similar to the H1N1 guidelines).
Immediately, the warnings about the length of time it will take to create, test and distribute the vaccine (complete with a cameo by CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta), invoke memories of the H1N1 near hysteria. But the magnitude of millions dead or dying fails to strike a genuine sense of sorrow and tragedy. Equally, the brief scenes of food shortage riots, looting and uncivilized conduct raise flaw consciousness, i.e. how did the non-ill manage to stay that way until scientists could manufacture a nose sniffing vaccine?
The unknown quantities of both the claustrophobic "Quarantine" and "Mist" induced tension levels beyond "Contagion," whose ending comes with a sense of hastiness. Viewers want more than the "day number" subtitle to demonstrate survivor perils, i.e. how do they manage to avoid the disease and hide away from civic unrest? Left ambiguously unstated - whether containment blockades allowed non-infected cities and towns?
But, the frantic pace achieved by cuts between the medical researchers, a family and overrun treatment facilities send serious chill bumps up and down the spine as the filmmakers invoke strokes from reality TV to credibly escalate normally in-control professionals facing near doomsday protocols without injecting any glaring melodramatic elements.
Instead of hurried exits, this is one flick where viewers should delight in staying in their seats for further character development (Damon and his daughter) and visualizations (rather than the spoken word) of bank runs, gas station mobs, and commodity shortages. Case in point, the aforementioned Ray Milland "Panic in Year Zero," sent a family into nuclear remoteness and exploited taken for granted "needs" which strengthened emotional empathy.