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Currently the fifth-to-last film on Steven Soderbergh's ever-expanding pre-retirement slate, Contagion opens on day two of a global viral epidemic. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Beth Emhoff, an employee of an ominously unspecific multinational corporation who returns from a business trip in Hong Kong to her wintry Midwestern home feeling like crap. Twenty-four hours after she's written off her sickness as jet lag in a phone call to her never-seen lover, Beth starts convulsing and foaming at the mouth. She's pronounced dead at the hospital, and before her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), can make it home to break the news to their young son, the kid follows suit. Soon jet-setters the world over are literally breaking into sweats simultaneously.
Beth is fingered as Patient Zero of a virus previously unseen on earth, which kills its victims within hours of the onset of symptoms and defies cure, containment or scientific understanding; as one researcher puts it, "It kills every cell we put it in." Hospitals and streets fill with the zombie sick, and the social order breaks down almost instantly.
In fine Irwin "Master of Disaster" Allen style, Soderbergh deploys a cast of thousands to help sketch the epidemic as a global, class-blind, all-encompassing event. Marion Cotillard is the adorable WHO epidemiologist assigned to trace the origins of Beth's illness by piecing together her last hours, as captured in multiple locations via apparently omnipresent surveillance cams. Laurence Fishburne is the CDC chief who sends deputy Kate Winslet to manage the crisis on the ground while he hunkers down at headquarters and tries to manage the message — a fight thwarted when conspiracy blogger Jude Law posts a video of a Japanese businessman collapsing on a city bus, which feeds a global panic that turns survivors like Mitch into hyper-paranoid shut-ins. Bryan Cranston, Elliott Gould, John Hawkes and Demetri Martin appear in small but crucial roles; Jennifer Ehle has a career-making part as the quietly brilliant researcher whom Soderbergh frames like an ingenue as she reels off jargon at an impossibly fast and mellifluous rate.
Speed itself is both a key Contagion theme — the virus that multiplies faster than it can be tracked, the technology that allows not only the quick transport of data and people over vast distances but also the constant tracking of that travel — and the film's defining aesthetic characteristic. Crafting staccato montages to a coolly insistent drum, bass and piano score, Soderbergh transitions between his interwoven stories at a rapid-fire pace, allowing a couple of seemingly major characters to disappear for long stretches and one to die with a startling lack of sentimentality.
Contagion is very much a Steven Soderbergh movie — as self-conscious a Hollywood entertainment as his Ocean's trilogy, and as microscopically attuned to its moment as his 2009 experimental sketch of the economic crisis, The Girlfriend Experience. It is also part 1970s star-studded and story-bloated disaster movie and part 1870s satire-as-serialized-soap-opera, a pulp-pop confection with an unusually serious-minded social critique at its heart.
As prolific a worker as any in contemporary Hollywood, Soderbergh claims to be on the verge of packing in his own career, which gives his movie a pretty interesting subtextual twist: Work, in Contagion, is fraught with mortal peril. The first victims are business travelers, while Damon's stay-at-home dad is spared and even turned into one of the film's least ambiguous heroes. If Contagion truly is the first leg of Soderbergh's retirement victory lap, this harrowing film is a potent reminder of what we stand to lose.
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