Contagion Review: Better Stock Up on Purel

In recent years, germs and disease have been one of the major obsessions in the world. Pandemic scares such as SARS and, most recently, H1N1, have really come close to creating a panic with a lot of people. Whether such a panic has been justified is a question for another type of website, but there's no doubt that these pandemics have, in one way or another, affected us all.

But disease is obviously far from a new reality. In fact, disease has likely been man's worst enemy throughout history. From the Black Death, to, more recently, smallpox and Spanish Flu, these diseases, these pandemics, have been a much greater threat to humankind than anything else. So maybe we take it for granted when we scoff at people worrying about Swine Flu or SARS. The threat is there, and it's probably something that shouldn't be taken lightly.

In that sense, "Contagion" almost plays like a public service announcement, or even worse, an advertisement for hand sanitizer. Viral disease is something that has has sneaked up on us plenty of times in the past, and that will likely sneak up on us again sometime in the future. And as humans, we take certain liberties with our health and hygiene that are sort of ridiculous when you think about them.

Early in the film, one of the scientists claim that humans touch their face an average of two or three times a minute. While the estimate may be a little high -- that would average out to thousands of times a day -- the point is valid. We go from touching doorknobs, bus poles, even toilets, to touching the easiest entry-point into our bodies, without so much as a second thought, and then wonder why we get sick. We touch each other, transferring germs and other disgusting things between us, across cities and countries, and get upset when someone doesn't want to shake our hands or embrace in a hug or kiss. The truth is, we're all kind of disgusting and riddled with germ and disease. Who the Hell lets us walk around so freely?

"Contagion" tells the story of a new disease, much like H1N1, but also completely unique, that rapidly spreads around the world, killing millions of humans. Relevant officials struggle as they race to find a cure, while the population tries their best to cope with a reality that could wipe them out. The film stars an ensemble cast led by Matt Damon, playing the film's everyman who has his life turned upside-down when his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his stepson are two of the first deaths at the hands of the disease. Laurence Fishburne plays a CDC higher-up who is at the forefront of the battle, along with a field-scientist played by Kate Winslet, and Jude Law plays a blogger who is among the first to uncover the disease -- among many, many others.

And there's really isn't much else you need to know about the film. It has a great cast, a proven director with a great crew behind him, and more importantly, a relevant and compelling plot. But how does it all hold together?

If it had to be classified, Contagion could be called a disaster film. The massive amounts of human death at the hands of a natural, faceless enemy, the panic that it causes, the politics behind it; if you didn't know any better, you could have sworn at time that this was a Rolan Emmerich film and not a Steven Soderbergh film. At other times, it almost plays out like a survival-horror movie. Between trying to keep yourself from scratch your face, you may be sitting in a theater wondering when the zombies or the aliens are going to burst out from the corner of the screen. But there are no beasts here. There's no contrived, cliché dialogue. No bloody deaths. No explosions or over-produced action sequences. Contagion is, in the simplest sense of the word, purely psychological.

Soderbergh can take something as simple as a cough, or a person touching a debit machine and make it a central theme in the film. And this style is very well supplemented by maybe the best cinematography I've ever seen from the prolific director, not to mention great song and sound choices, and of course a ridiculously good group of actors. I might venture to say that while, in the long run, Contagion may be one of many Soderbergh films, it may very well be his best work behind the camera.

It would be easy to phone in a movie about a killer virus, stack it with a bunch of stars and call it a day, but Contagion is a finely tuned craft. Soderbergh makes us believe that every shot, every angle has a vital role to play in telling the story. From close up shots of distraught actors, to shots of seemingly random shots of cities or venues affected by the film's disease, shuffling quicker than a projector on steroids, it seems like every single frame was carefully chosen by the director, and it adds so much to the film, as do the drab and dreary colors he chose, mostly the yellow/beige/gray tints you may remember from "The Informant!"

Soderbergh and his composers and sound editors do just as good a job of making sure that the music is just as craftily chosen as the camera work. Former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer and frequent Soderbergh contributor Cliff Martinez created the original music, and all of it is so well placed in ever scene. Moreover, the film makes excellent use of silence when it needs to, something that is taken for granted in many movies.

While Contagion likely made most of its box-office money based on it's incredible cast, and that cast likely makes an impact on the film much more subtly than expected, the acting may be considered a weak point in the film. Not because it was bad, but more because the work behind the camera was so good that many of the performances become sort of forgettable.

Jude Law is possibly the biggest standout, as he gives one of his best performances possibly ever, as Alan Krumwiede, a blogger who gets a handle on the film's disease before anyone else. Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, and Marion Cotillard provide the performances you'd very well expect from them, and there are a few nice surprises in the film as well with some small roles from Bryan Cranston, Elliott Gould, Enrico Colantoni, and even comedian Demetri Martin, of all people. But in the end, there's so much going on that none of them outside of Law really end up shining, not to mention that many of their storylines truly do end up staying separate.

And that makes you wonder whether the film would have benefited from somewhat of a simpler set of storylines. As good as she is, the Marion Cotillard storyline could have been completely cut out of the same. The same goes for Elliott Gould's appearance.

Of course, you could chalk this up to the writing, and while Scott Z. Burns did an incredible job with "The Informant!" -- again, with Soderbergh and Damon -- a couple of years ago, he comes close to reaching a new level with Contagion, but falls short thanks to a slightly disjointed narrative. The multiple sub-plots, for the most part, actually work and provide an advantage to the film, in terms of telling a multi-faceted story from different perspectives, but you just wonder whether some of those sub-plots were really necessary, or whether they were inconsequential filler. Still, Burns provides a lot of depth and substance to a plot that could very well be considered thin in the hands of another writer, and credit must be given to him for crafting a very compelling tale based deeply in realism.

Soderbergh had a definite balancing act to play here. If he relied too heavily on this incredible cast, the film may have been perceived as way too shallow. But over the last decade, Soderbergh has proven himself to be the master of the ensemble cast, as evidenced by the award-winning "Traffic, as well as the Ocean's films. And that's truly the major selling-point here. Not all the name actors, not even frightening potential of the plot being an actual news story some day, but how it's so well put together, how it uses brilliant filming and lighting techniques to scare the pants off us -- more so than any canned horror movie has in recent years.

I've been trying to say away from hyperbole lately, but I could even go as far to say that this is Soderbergh's best work, even better than Traffic. So expertly crafted, so well filmed and photographed, I would be a little upset if Soderbergh wasn't at least considered for an Oscar for this movie -- and the same goes for Jude Law in his supporting role.

Beyond the directing, Contagion is still a compelling, scary, tense movie that tells a great, grounded story, and it accomplishes everything that it does without a single explosion, with barely any violence, with no monsters or aliens or zombies. It's frightening because it's actually possible, and because it's so realistic, and everyone involved with the film makes that sense of realism and tension possible.

Contagion gets a Freshly Popped 9 out of 10.