Movies love to prey on our most immediate fears. With "Contagion" director Steven Soderbergh has glorified the recent Swine Flu hysteria into a modern outbreak thriller about a different but more deadly virus making its way from the Asian jungles to suburban Middle America. But the fear of illness is only the jumping off point in "Contagion's" rampage of anxiety. Early on we watch a crosscut sequence of ethnically diverse -- but equally infirm -- travelers stumbling home from airports worldwide before infecting their friends and family. The message is: Airports aren't safe. Next the virus makes its way into an elementary school in Minnesota where the wee pupils fall ill and then start biting the dust: Neither are schools. And finally, when panic has fully enveloped the people, riots, pillaging and home invasions -- all the calling signs of full on anarchy -- make it clear that it's not even safe inside your own home. Soderbergh is going for absolute paranoia, and he comes close to achieving it. But the film's biggest chill comes from its hints of realism; it's pretty convincing that this is what an infectious disease outbreak of this scale might actually look like.
Though "Contagion" spends less time on the front lines of its dastardly epidemic than with the problem solvers, scapegoats and profiteers working tirelessly behind the scenes. As the head of the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) struggles to identify the virus and ready a vaccination. Pretty soon he's the focus of vilification by the government and media for not responding quick enough. (Hell, ya gotta blame somebody). Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet), a prevention specialist, fights to halt the spread of the disease in the U.S. while Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard), an epidemiologist, travels to China to investigate the source of the virus. Making trouble in the shadows is high profile blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) -- a muckraker in cahoots with a cash-grabbing pharmaceutical company. His online rants make for incendiary panic fuel.
Here's the problem: the film plays out as an extremely well produced dramatization, but where's the drama? The movie's everyman nucleus is Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), the poor schlub whose two-timin' wife (Gwenyth Paltrow) brings the first bug home from a business trip in Hong Kong. He goes missing from the story for long stints; all the characters are mostly skin deep. What's most intriguing is that, more than any other film I've scene, "Contagion" showers the viewer with statistics, numbers: number of days since outbreak, incubation periods, spread rates, vaccine sample numbers, mortality rates and population sizes. At one point we learn that 25 million people have died. Soderbergh never makes us feel the weight of that loss. There are traces of humanity to be found within the movie. At one point, a dying doctor, on her last ounce of strength, can't quite hand a jacket to a freezing patient. Emhoff puts on an adorable mock prom for his house-arrested teenage daughter. But the populations of "Contagion" don't feel like people. They feel more like numbers.