New on DVD: Contagion (2011)

If everyone watched Contagion, sales of hand sanitizer would go through the roof.

The latest from the ridiculously productive filmmaker Steven Soderbergh is a hypnotic juggling act, a carefully calibrated mashup of characters and situations that proves him a master storyteller.

Along the way he darn near wipes out humanity.

Contagion is about a killer flu pandemic that puts mankind on the ropes. It paints a grim but fully-detailed picture of how we’d react in such circumstances. It’s not pretty.

The film introduces a dozen important characters, many of whom won’t make it to the last reel. You can take nothing for granted in this apocalyptic tale.

An American businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns home after a trip to Hong Kong. She’s not feeling well, but writes it off to jet lag.

When she goes into convulsions her husband (Matt Damon) rushes her to the hospital, where she dies horribly. When reports pour in of the same thing happening to people in Asia (and travelers who have recently visited the East), researchers at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta realize they’re dealing with something very scary — an entirely new strain of flu against which they have no defense.

The depth of Soderbergh’s cast is little short of astounding.

Laurence Fishburne is the head of the CDC; Jennifer Ehle his head researcher. Bryan Cranston is a military type charged with finding out if this is some sort of manmade attack.

Kate Winslet is a first responder; Marion Cotillard is a World Health Organization expert sent to China to seek the source of the infection.

Jude Law is a conspiracy-minded blogger who defies the medical establishment by pushing a homeopathic cure.

Look also for John Hawkes, Sanaa Lathan, Demetri Martin and Elliott Gould, among other familiar faces.

They’re all good, but all are subservient to the overall yarn, which is presented in such a factual (and cooly non-hysterical) manner that it only heightens our distress.

Scott Z. Burns’ screenplay appears utterly grounded in realism, from the scientists’ search for a cure to the depiction of a modern society rapidly unraveling (riots, looting, widespread starvation, trenches in which hundreds of bodies are bulldozed).

But the personal conflicts that emerge ring true as well: A CDC official breaking protocols to tell his fiance to flee the big city; Damon’s widower using everything at his disposal to protect his teenage daughter from the plague; a researcher using herself as a human guinea pig to speed up development of a cure.

In fact, the depth of story crammed into 105 minutes is remarkable, yet Contagion never feels rushed or perfunctory.

You needn’t be OCD to have this experience get under your skin. This is one horror movie that cannot be easily dismissed.

 

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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