There are numerous ways one could go with an "epidemic thriller" like Contagion. The smash hit Outbreak turned the premise into a goofy little race against the clock affair; last year's Never Let Me Go looked at the after-effects in personal and heartbreaking fashion; horror flicks like The Crazies are content to roll around in the gore while making a simple point or two. Fortunately the latest example of cinematic diseases gone crazy comes from the prolific and unpredictable Steven Soderbergh, which means his Contagion is a star-studded but sobering affair and a tight noose of tension that never resorts to ticking clocks or unrealistic helicopter chases.
The massive cast of characters deftly illustrate, as realistically as possible, how the various health organizations respond to a sudden outbreak of a virus as deadly as it is mysterious. From an unwitting midwestern housewife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her shell-shocked husband (Matt Damon), we follow the progression of the unnamed virus as it insidiously marches its way through cities like Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, London, Hong Kong ... and clearly it has the ability to wipe out half the planet if some very smart doctors don't get involved real quick. That means administrators (Laurence Fishburne), scientists (Jennifer Ehle), professors (Elliott Gould), and researchers (Kate Winslet). It means an epidemiologist (Marion Cottilard) must travel the globe and track the virus to its source, that bureaucrat (Enrico Colantoni) and military man (Bryan Cranston) must work together, and that normal citizens have to hide inside their homes for fear of catching a virulent new strain of certain death.
To his credit, Soderbergh balances all of the procedural material with a deft momentum and a good deal of smarts, which means that Contagion works well enough as a piece of social commentary that both criticizes and praises our various "plague" procedures. As a thriller that threatens a quick and gruesome demise behind every expended breath, Contagion does a workmanlike job. Perhaps it's because the film feels most like a medical thriller that there's never a true sense of danger; the film has numerous scenes of death and destruction but they're presented so matter-of-factly that the chills seem more unnerving than truly disturbing.
If there's an area in which Contagion falters, it's in the human side of the equation. With such a massive and colorful cast, and with so many fast-paced, globe-trotting threads to follow, the "adventure" starts to feel more than a little clinical. Ultimately Contagion feels like half a reminder that our place in the universe is a tenuous one indeed, and half a handsome bio-thriller that gives its actors some noble / tragic moments in the sun, but doesn't leave much of an impact on the heart.