Contagion opens with Gwyneth Paltrow coughing. She's on her cell phone at an airport, about to board a flight. Cameras observe the various things she is touching, the ways germs are being transferred. A few scenes later—after a fast-paced montage shows a handful of other coughing individuals in places like Hong Kong and London—Paltrow's character returns home to her husband (Matt Damon) and young son, her violent illness worsening. Within the film's first five minutes, she is dead and autopsied, and so is her son.
The fast paced, take-no-prisoners opening of Contagion sets the tone for the film. From the get go, director Steven Soderbergh establishes the pace (rapid), the scale (global), and the stakes (no one is safe—not even Gwyneth Paltrow and not even little children). From there, the film launches in to meticulous, globetrotting narrative of the pandemic outbreak of a mysterious, hitherto unknown virus that kills its victims within days. With a documentary-esque attention to detail and realism, Contagion takes a disturbing look at just what it might look like if, in 2011, an outbreak like this occurred.
Evoking his past ensemble-rich films like Traffic and Oceans 11, Soderbergh's Contagion alternates rapidly between a number of storylines related to the outbreak. Most prominent in the film are the characters from the Center for Disease Control, featuring Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, and Jennifer Ehle as doctors tasked with understanding the lethal airborne virus and developing a vaccine before it gets out of control. Then there is Marion Cotillard as a World Health Organization official dispatched to East Asia to investigate the origins of the virus and pinpoint the location of the "index patient." Other prominent cast members include Elliott Gould, John Hawkes, and Jude Law, the latter playing an opportunistic blogger who rises to influence (7 million unique daily visitors!) in the midst of the crisis by suggesting government cover-ups and CDC collusion with the pharmaceutical industry.
There are a few things that make Contagion rise above its peers in the "disaster/disease outbreak" movie genre. One is its filmmaking caliber. Contagion is a well-made, superbly acted, stylish thriller. Soderbergh is particularly talented at combining arthouse smarts with populist entertainment value, and it shows here. The film's editing is impressively taut and economical, covering about a half year in the life of a global health calamity in the span of about 100 minutes, pausing at appropriate moments for quiet interpersonal exchanges and emotional expressions of individual characters.
Another strength of Contagion is its perceptive, provocative commentary on contemporary society. The film is very much of the moment, reflecting on things like how technology (blogging, Twitter, etc.) can exacerbate panic and rapidly spread misinformation (faster sometimes than even airborne diseases). There is also an interesting pro-government subtext to the film. At a time when the political right seems focused on demonizing the federal government, Contagion takes pains to illustrate the plus sides of government: for example, the value of a coordinated federal disaster response equipped with funding and authority to get all the states and municipalities on the same page, or the value of mandated food regulations in keeping diseased animals from reaching kitchens and consumers. Sometimes the film's politics get too obvious: A city government employee is ridiculously demonized for complaining about federal authorities taking over the local disease containment. But most of the time, Contagion's political questions remain secondary to its primary task: grippingly showing the human drama that might unfold should a disaster of this scale take place.