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Kate Winslet is shown in a scene from the film Contagion.

AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures

3 out of 4 stars

Country
USA
Language
English

An executive returns to her snow-quilted Midwest home from a hectic Hong Kong business trip. She looks and feels beat – who wouldn't? But soon jet lag turns into something else. She can't move. Then she can't grip a coffee cup or breathe. Too soon, incredibly, she's dead. Reeling, past despondent, her husband faces the hard task of informing their son that the woman who held him so close a few hours before is gone.

He doesn't have to. The child is dead, too.

The infection, whatever it is, multiplies quickly – two, four, 87,000, 27 million casualties. It'll be a billion in weeks maybe. Presidents and prime ministers go underground to worry and plan, thankful they're not in caskets. Civilizations dissolve. Anarchy is loosed upon the world.

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Director Steven Soderbergh's latest is very much like an all-star, seventies-style disaster movie – The Towering Inferno or Earthquake, say. In a movie with so many fast-moving parts, A- and B-plus-list actors Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law and Bryan Cranston are around to make it easier for us to remember who's who.

Except that Contagion isn't meant to provide delicious roller-coaster chills. Released two days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it's a film meant to scare the bejesus out of us.

And the movie moves faster than any carnival ride you'd dare step on. Soderbergh accentuates the mood of galloping panic by interweaving plots at a breakneck pace, racing between scenes and telling some stories in montage sequences. He also provides an agitated soundscape from former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez – fingernail-chewing music.

Apart from the bereft suburban father (Matt Damon) and his quest to keep his remaining family together in the face of roving, gun-toting vigilantes, Contagion follows unsentimental professionals dealing with the implications and logistics of a plague that could kill everyone. Their banter is flavourful and droll.

"Any way someone could weapon the bird flu? Is that what we're looking at?" a nervous U.S. Homeland Security official asks the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) commander, Dr. Cheever (Fishburne).

"Someone doesn't have to weapon the bird flu; the birds are doing that," deadpans the unblinking doctor.

Sly topical jokes emerge. During a mass civic funeral, instead of listening to a politician's pious speech, we eavesdrop on bored members of a clean-up crew grousing about equipment shortages. Apparently the American government won't allow its cities to order body bags from Canada.

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It's the dark comic moments and the film's sci-fi, B-movie, race-to-develop-a-vaccine subplot that prevent Contagion from being a gloomy two hours in the dark. That and Soderbergh's delight in characters. Fishburne is wonderfully cool and watchable as the unflappable CDC commander.

More interesting and fun is Jude Law playing a muckraking Internet blogger with Fleet Street instincts and a Cockney accent. (He actually uses the word "crikey" at one point.) Law's character hopes to subvert the government's response to the spreading virus, thereby increasing his following on Twitter. In another one of Contagion's precious little jokes – a poke at the British dental system – Law's front teeth appear to grow bigger (like Pinocchio's nose) as his character tells bigger and more devious lies.

Earlier this year, Soderbergh announced on National Public Radio his intention to retire a couple of movies from now. He wants to become a painter, he says. That's bad news for film fans. Moviegoers will miss anyone who can scare the hell out of us and make us laugh at the same time.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Contagion

  • Directed by Steven Soderbergh
  • Written by Scott Z. Burns
  • Starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law and Bryan Cranston
  • Classification: PG
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