If you find yourself suddenly feeling like the theater walls are closing in, that the air is thick and dense with the breath of strangers, and you have an uncontrollable urge to race to the bathroom to splash some water on your face in a "the-motion-sensor-faucets-better-be-working" panic, chances are, you have just seen "Contagion."
Directed by Steven Soderbergh and featuring a cast laden with bold print talent, including Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet, hold onto your SARS mask because this isn't your mama's "Outbreak."
Despite a (slightly misleading) ad campaign that would have you believe it could be a run-of-the-mill thriller about a disease run rampant, "Contagion" is actually thoughtful, subtle and harrowing; a tale as much about the unraveling of society in the face of tragedy and terror as it is about the spread of a silent, unseen killer.
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Beginning in an airport, a well known Petri dish of disease and infection, with the title card Day 2, the film follows several storylines that range from the inner workings of the CDC to a father desperate to keep his family healthy, as a deadly virus spread around the world. As time marches forward, into days and months, and the death toll rises without a cure or vaccine, the president is moved underground, military checkpoints are one of the last safeguards against total anarchy, and death becomes a looming secondary character that permeates each scene.
Even with a few un-investable story lines and the disappearance of a few characters for long chunks at a time, Contagion is a return to fine form for Soderbergh who's been off his game for most of the last decade, having seemingly lost his creative mojo after "Ocean's 11." Equal measures heart-breaking and pulse-quickening, the director's impressive assemblage of talent—most notably Winslet and Jennifer Ehle who plays a level-headed scientist methodically working on a cure—fall prey to the "Towering Inferno"/"Hurt Locker" school of filmmaking where no one’s safe, which makes for terrifying and exhilarating viewing.
A film that burrows its way into your psyche like an ear wig that hatches a colony of neuroses, you'll soon be counting the number of times you touch your face, find yourself glaring at an un-pressed elevator button with the fiery hatred of a thousand suns and opening doors with your sleeve in perpetuity.
Now, if you'll excuse us, we need to go snort a line of Emergen-C and buy stock in Purell.