We are presented with the outbreak and accelerated worldwide spread of a mysterious virus contracted by Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) in Hong Kong, which kills its subjects in a matter of hours.
The story is told primarily from the perspective of a series of professionals from the Centre for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, which Ellis Cheever, played by Lawrence Fishburne, and his protegé Erin Mears, played by Kate Winslet, along with Marion Cotillard as Leonora Orantesand, who all attempt to respond to the epidemic and develop a vaccine.
It may seem like an odd choice to make a group of office-dwellers the centre of your disaster story and the dramatic impotence implied by such a choice is translated onto the screen.
We imagine the screenwriter watching Blindness after completing a draft, another recent epidemic film whose disease follows a similar course, and which revelled melodramatically in the terror of a society starved of leadership and order, and returning to his computer determined to avoid the broad and cheesy mistakes he'd just witnessed. Sadly, in so doing he seems to have wiped away the fear that is intended to translate to the audience.
It might be unfair to focus solely on the suits, as we spend a fair amount of the film with Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), a grieving husband and father obsessed with his surviving daughter's purity, and Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) a conspiracy theorist blogger who claims to have found a homeopathic remedy to the virus.
However, when these two characters must shoulder the bulk of the epidemic's impact on the public, and one of them is resolutely motivated to stay in the house and ensure his daughter does the same, while the other is most comfortable in front of his computer screen, they do not offer much of a reprieve from the mostly dispassionate exploits of their upper-level health worker counterparts.
Luckily, the curious absence of dramatic tension and reticence to plunge into the emotions of the characters with any depth does not doom the picture. The film is saved by the fantastic direction from Soderbergh as well as superlative performances of its talented main cast, complimented by cameos and supporting performances by the likes of Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, Demitri Martin and John Hawkes.
The talents that appear throughout Soderbergh's varied filmography, making him both bankable for the studios and consistently interesting for audiences, coalesce here more than ever before.
The lighting we saw in Erin Brockovich appears here in the form of a colour scheme dominated by sickly yellows haunting the health workers wherever they go (traded on heavily in the promotional materials), alternating with sterile blues plaguing Mitch's isolation.
Soderbergh manages to maintain the stylish feeling of his Ocean's trilogy while leaving behind the overt flashiness. This move defines the director's transition to something of an elusive auteur in this film: from the opening frames we can tell this is distinctively a Soderbergh film, yet without simply responding that it feels like a good movie, it's difficult to pinpoint why.
Rounded out by a terrific electronic score (with occasionally orchestral high-impact flourishes) in the vein of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' Oscar-winner from this time last year, Contagion brings us what we might imagine from the trailer: a classy thriller bolstered by great performances, despite betraying the horror-movie status the publicity has conferred upon it.
Lastly, it seems I was not alone in feeling that the film did not leave me upon returning from the theatre. When leaving the bathroom after the film, never in my life had I seen a crowd so eager to wash their hands.