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The problem with horror movies is that nine times out of ten, they are not scary, and generally if they do manage to create fear within their audience it's usually due to well developed tension and jump inducing surprises. They rarely have what it takes to strike into the psyche of a person and leave them wandering from the theater literally fearing what might be around the corner. Though Contagion is not billed as a horror film, it is by far the scariest movie I've seen in I don't know how long. Steven Soderbergh's all star flu epidemic thriller is a highly realistic downward spiral that shows all too well what could potentially happen to the human race if a highly contagious disease was released into the concrete jungles we call home.
Top researchers from around the world (Jennifer Ehle, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Elliott Gould) are frantically trying to find a cure for a brand new globe-trotting mystery disease after the deaths of several people that recently spent time in Hong Kong, including the wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) of a man who happens to be immune (Matt Damon). While the disease is spreading fast, fear is spreading faster thanks to bloggers (Jude Law) and major media outlets. There is no cure to be found without months of testing, so the modern world descends into chaos as people fight for food and wind whispered cures. Don't touch anything. Don't go near anyone. No one is safe. The government is holding together by ethernet cables, and law enforcement is slim to none. Mankind's only hope is for someone to develop a vaccine, and fast.
Soderbergh wastes no time, diving right into the unflinchingly grim scenario for our foreboding introduction. The film is cold, and like the isolated rooms the sick are confined to, sterile. We don't get to know the film's sprawling cast, and we don't need to. The film isn't about the tortured individuals we meet, it is about human nature's need to survive, even when faced with an uncontrollable, unstoppable force. People will do what they need to to survive, whether that be living in a cave somewhere, or killing their neighbors. From the get go, we are made to feel uneasy with sickly citizens, drenched in sweat, keeling over at a moments notice. Even the pulsing electro soundtrack that lines the film is reminiscent of distant alarms and sirens coming near and veering away, taking their worrisome sounds of warning with them, but leaving that distinct feeling of dread lingering behind. Fear is the central theme here. Propelled by the media, played down by the government, and completely warranted by the populace, fear can rip a society to shreds, and it does when faced with microscopic death. Soderbergh has once again paired with his writing buddy Scott Z. Burns, this time crafting one hell of a directorial showcase. He never gets too flashy, but it's obvious Soderbergh's austere vision is wholly intact.
The announcement has been made that Soderbergh will soon be retiring. His diverse resume, and recent heavy influence in Hollywood are reason enough for a curled lower lip, but it's films like this that stand as a firm reminder that he will be greatly missed upon his last retreating bow. Contagion isn't a film that will latch on to your heart, but it will make your skin crawl and your bones ache at the pure realism of it all. This really could happen. If you don't bring a bottle of hand sanitizer along to the theater, you might stop and get one on your way home.
--Jordan M. Smith
Release Date: September 9, 2011