(Steven Soderbergh, 2011)
Taking a particular subgenre of the popular 1970s disaster movie, the pandemic thriller, and thoroughly modernising it, Soderbergh, together with his screenwriter Scott Z Burns, demonstrates again that there are few better filmmakers in America currently making adult entertainments. Contagion is a procedural, a precise account of how a virus spreads through the world, and also an account of how the bodies put in place by the human race identify it, classify it and eventually counter it. But it is also, in it's inimitably Soderberghian, chilly way, an utterly gripping thriller. We see people we like put at risk and tested by this virus, we wonder who it will take next, and the deaths of two major stars tell us early on that nobody is safe. Then we are with the scientists racing to create a vaccine in order to save not one, but millions of lives.
Then there is the fact that it is an epic. Almost casually epic, a globetrotting, international story with a massive cast of speaking parts and at least five separate and equally important narrative threads running simultaneously. And nobody - except perhaps Micahel Mann - captures the real world, "the now" quite as well as Soderbergh does. Each location feels different and distinctive, from Hong Kong to the American Midwest, largely due to Soderbergh's ability to pick up on detail and texture in his environments.
Detail is crucial here; early on the camera lingers an almost subliminal beat longer on certain objects and surfaces until the viewer queasily realises that these are all subject to communal touch; a bowl of peanuts on a bar, a door handle, a handrail on public transport. Later the visceral fear of germs, and by extension of other people, is vividly communicated in the arc following Damon's character, immune to the virus himself but terrified his teenaged daughter might get it.
He is as solid as ever, but each of the stars here dials down the wattage on their starpower in order to slip seamlessly into the impressive ensemble. Jennifer Ehle is perhaps the great standout, but she too is outshone by the film's focal character and protagonist; the virus itself.