One sick person in Macau turns into millions dead across the globe in Contagion, a movie that will leave you totally freaked out about the person two rows behind you in the theater who is coughing the whole time.
Is it getting on me? What do they have? Do they have the illness in the movie? That’s probably not possible but what if it is? Can I get out of this theater without touching anything? Oh, God, I just touched my face — aaagh, I did it again. Now I’m going to die just like Gwyneth Paltrow! Spoiler alert!
Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) returns home to Minnesota jet-lagged after a business trip to Macau. Or at least she thinks it’s jet-lag. By the next day she’s staring bleary-eyed at a piece of toast, looking like the most zombie of the zombie flu sufferers who clog the Rite Aids and Hannaford pharmacy aisles every winter. But she moves past that stage and quickly transitions to lying on the floor convulsing. Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) takes her to the hospital and before the doctors can figure out what’s happened she’s dead.
Beth is dead but not the virus. We get nice queasy-making close-ups of, for example, the door at the school where Mitch picks up Beth’s son the day before she dies because he too is sick. And we get a nice tight shot of the peanuts in front of Beth at the airport bar where she spent some time on the layover before the final leg of her trip. And we see the credit card that she hands to a totally unsuspecting bartender.
Within a few days, more cases of this flu-like illness are showing up in seemingly random locations and killing people all over the globe — people in China, a guy in Japan, someone in London, someone in Chicago. Eventually the CDC gets involved and Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) watches the illness spread from his office in Atlanta and sends Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) up to Minnesota to deal with the cluster of cases. Back in Atlanta, Drs. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and David Eisenberg (Demetri Martin) work on finding the origin of the virus and possibly finding a way to grow it, the first step in creating a vaccine. Meanwhile the World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to China to investigate the spread of the illness there. And the media gets in on the game, including blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). Alan is an early believer in the pandemic possibilities of the virus and mixes factual alarm with conspiracy theory.
The movie unfolds this nightmare with clinical dispassion that makes the whole thing seem just that much more real and has you wondering where in your car you stashed that bottle of Purell. The movie weaves together the stories of the various people involved with remarkable skill — due in part, I think, to the fact that the virus is always the focus. Much as in the very best years of Law & Order, personalities and backstories seep into the frame only as they relate to the virus. We don’t get 100 sob stories, we get a dozen people and can fill in their stories ourselves or not — just enough hints at dimension to add life and extra fear.
With the story of the virus as the central narrative, the performances all fall nicely in to place. The movie has an energy that is, well, infectious, carrying you along as it leaves Minnesota and the Emhoffs and goes to China and then to Atlanta. Forget the gore-soaked horror movies; this is the cool, science suspense-thriller that will leave you completely, deliciously terrified. B+
Rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Scott Z. Burns, Contagion is an hour and 45 minutes long and is distributed by Warner Bros.