"Contagion," the new disaster film from Steven Soderbergh, mixes and matches different perspectives on the prospect of a worldwide epidemic with surprising effectiveness. The film opens eerily with the sound of a woman coughing set against a black screen, accompanied soon after by the words "Day Two." That woman, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) turns out to be one of the first victims of a new virus that we soon see sweeping the world in a number of quick scenes from around the globe.
Soderbergh's goal, it seems, is to relate to the viewer by showing concretely how lives are affected by such a virus, and he consequently focuses much more on his characters than on the evolution of the epidemic. For Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), the husband of the late Beth, the loss of his wife and stepson, coupled with the revelation that Beth had had an affair, is nearly too much to bear. Mitch, who proves to be immune to the virus and is by far the most developed character in the film, brought to life by one of Damon's better performances, is driven to micromanage and essentially quarantine his surviving daughter.
A WHO doctor, Dr. Orantes, (Marion Cotillard) is kidnapped by villagers in East Asia desperate to be among the first to obtain the potential vaccine. A conniving blogger (Jude Law) manufactures his own herbal treatment and propagates the rumor that it is effective through his online publication. CDC director Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) struggles to balance his own interests with his country's, while trying to supervise his on-location investigator (Kate Winslet), who harbors paranoia of her own. A CDC lab worker (Jennifer Ehle) works desperately to find a cure.
Through each of these snippets (the characters are covered to varying degrees; Cotillard's kidnapped doctor seems largely forgotten in the meat of the film while the CDC employees and the Emhoff family eat a great deal of screen time) the world of "Contagion" becomes more identifiable. We see bits of ourselves in the characters, from our finest qualities in Cotillard's doctor to our most despicable in Law's self-centered blogger, and wonder whom we would resemble more were we to face a similar crisis.
But the truest parts of "Contagion"-- Mitch Emhoff crying silently as he flips through photos on Beth's digital camera, for instance-- are those that show the emotional impact the virus levies. It may kill millions, but the statistics cannot allow us to overlook the toll on the individual lives of those who survive. Soderbergh moves the film at a quick enough pace to also keep the intrigue alive, and this makes "Contagion" work almost perfectly. It is choppy in points, perhaps, but by the end you will want neither to share a drink with your seat companion nor part ways with the grieving Emhoff. And in this, "Contagion" accomplishes both its goals.