Contagion, the latest slick production from director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean's Eleven) is less a story than a hypothetical. What would happen if a deadlier SARS-like virus started killing off huge swaths of the world's population? The result is something like the History Channel special, Life After People. Day two, the disease spreads to four major metropolitan regions; Day 10 the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and Homeland Security collaborate to contain the problem; Day 20, law and order begin to crumble under the weight of panic.
While the film follows the trajectory of the pandemic, what's important is the way people respond. Some, like Catholic charities, put themselves at risk for their fellow man. Others loot, riot, and look beadily about to make sure the next guy isn't getting some advantage they're not. Boogeymen from all points of the political spectrum pop up as nurses unions go on strike precisely when they're needed most, hedge fund managers try to profit from the fallout, and both federal red tape and states' rights hinder distribution of a vaccine.
There's no doubt that Soderbergh's vision is arresting and sickeningly credible. Yet despite boasting a veritable galaxy of stars (Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, and Kate Winslet, to name a few), Contagion (rated PG-13 for language and medical gore) is the only film I can recall that caused me to worry more about myself than the characters on screen.
Hands shake-the disease passes-a woman coughs on an elevator-the disease passes-a waiter dries a glass-the disease passes-and hundreds of millions of people die. So many shots illustrate the microbial interactions we all have on a daily basis, it's enough to make a germaphobe out of anyone. After a woman sneezed a few rows away from me, I had to remind myself first, it's only a movie, and second, no matter what kind of flu mutation strikes the earth, Christ's children should have a spirit of love, not fear.