Contagion (PG-13) ★★★★

Review Date: September 13th, 2011

Contagion, a sharp thriller from writer/director/cinematographer/editor/do-all Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's 11, The Informant!), is like an adaptation of a Michael Crichton novel that never was. The movie quickly sets up its pawns in order to engage you in a game of pandemic chess, where the terror comes from science and the humanity comes from your own empathy. Instead of relying on a sci-fi backstory, outlandish deaths or large-scale set pieces, Soderbergh lets the facts do the talking—and it's scary as hell.

Much like his Oscar-winning film Traffic, Soderbergh unfolds the story by weaving in and out between a series of character perspectives: Matt Damon's Mitch, who loses his wife to a mysterious virus and strives to protect the rest of his family; Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle, members of the Center for Disease Control racing against the clock to find a cure; Kate Winslet's Erin, a field agent tracking down the source of the American outbreak; Jude Law's Alan, a high-profile blogger searching for the truth behind the disease; and Marion Cotillard's Dr. Orantes, another agent hunting for Patient Zero in Hong Kong. While the drama spans globally, each characters' quarrels are playing out in a claustrophobic scenario, a world in which any person they meet, any object they touch can infect them with the life-threatening disease.

Soderbergh doesn't have much time to dive into his characters' backstories, but the film's screenwriter Scott Z. Burns carefully constructs each scene to deliver just the right balance of terrifying scientific babble and revealing personal drama. When the virus starts massacring the world population and vandalism, riots and societal unrest emerge, the thing that makes Contagion click is our interest in the personal stories. Damon, as seems to be the case with everything he touches, elevates the material, being the perfect everyman and our surrogate for the too-plausible-for-comfort scenario. Fishburne too turns what's normally a plot-forwarding government agent role into a man dealing with the weight of his decisions, watching citizens of the country drop like flies from his ivory tower. It's heavy stuff, but Burns' playful dialogue helps the cast lighten the harrowing mood—only so the movie can pull the carpet from underneath you over and over again.

But in the end, Contagion is Soderbergh's show. The director uses every ounce of cinematic artistry to leave us squirming in our seats, with a fetishistic approach to shooting the most mundane of objects. The close-up is Soderbergh's weapon of choice, honing in on common day objects that we realize are infested with germs (with the effect amplified by a thousand if you catch the movie in IMAX). A door handle, a bathroom drier button, the human face—Soderbergh lingers as a reminder of his invisible villain: the virus. That's a compliment: the design and photography is striking, the purposefully pristine picture quality fills the characters' quest to stay healthy with tension. Composer Cliff Martinez's electronic score compliments the icky scenario, germinating over the picture like audible infection. The world of the film is rich with detail. Just the icky kind.

Contagion isn't flawless. With so much going on things fall to the wayside—Cotillard's plotline specifically gets lost in the shuffle—but the reality keeps us engrossed. The movie plays like an oral history of a horrific event, with each detail frighteningly exposed. Except in the case of Contagion, it's not an event that has happened, so much as one that could happen.

And at any moment. rated this film 4 stars.