Returning home from a business trip to Hong Kong, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) goes from coughing to dead on the kitchen floor, foaming at the mouth in very short order. As husband Mitch (Matt Damon) accompanies her to the hospital, their young son is dying at home, though not before infecting a few people at school. Mitch, however, seems to be immune. There are similar pockets popping up in China and Japan, as well as elsewhere in the U.S.. The particular strain of contagion is new, and scientists from the Centers for Disease Control are racing to identify and stop it.
Director Steven Soderbergh masterfully creates wonderful tension with this tightly scripted (by Scott Z. Burns) horror film where infection is the monster and everyone is a potential victim. You start looking at rather innocuous things – a doorknob, a packed bus, a water-eyed child – as awfully threatening and suddenly the movie is packed with dread and danger.
Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard play scientists with boots on the ground who suffer for their work in their own ways, while a little higher up the chain, Laurence Fishburne grapples with the more ethical side of the equation. In a race to save lives, whose lives will be saved first? There are lots of fine performances but no real stand-outs and Soderbergh seems determined to cast every celebrity he’s ever had drinks with. Because it’s packed with so many characters and perspectives, it’s not a very intimate story, rather, it’s more like a disaster movie where the threat is invisible but no less deadly.
Of course, in a scenario like this, disease is only part of the problem. With thousands dropping dead every day and no cure in sight, society begins to break down. Quarantine laws shuts down even essential services. Life as we know it ends rather quickly, and the world’s greatest cities are quickly shadows of their former selves. It truly doesn’t take much, which is the scariest reminder of all.