Currently the fifth-to-last film on Steven Soderbergh's ever-expanding pre-retirement slate, Contagion opens on day two of a global viral epidemic. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Beth Emhoff, an American employee for an ominously unspecific multinational corporation who returns from a business trip in Hong Kong to her wintry Midwestern home feeling like crap. Twenty-four hours after she's written off her sickness as jet lag in a phone call to her never-seen lover, Beth starts convulsing and foaming at the mouth. She's pronounced dead at the hospital, and before her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), can make it home to break the news to their young son, the kid follows suit. Soon jet-setters the world over are literally breaking into sweat simultaneously.
Beth is fingered as Patient Zero of a virus previously unseen on earth, which kills its victims within hours of the onset of symptoms and defies cure, containment, or scientific understanding. As one researcher puts it, "It kills every cell we put it in." Hospitals and streets fill with the zombie sick, and the social order breaks down almost instantly.
In fine Irwin "Master of Disaster" Allen style, Soderbergh deploys a cast of thousands to help sketch the epidemic as a global, class-blind, all-encompassing event. Marion Cotillard is the adorable WHO epidemiologist assigned to trace the origins of Beth's illness. Laurence Fishburne is the CDC chief who sends deputy Kate Winslet to manage the crisis on the ground while he tries to manage the message––a fight thwarted when conspiracy blogger Jude Law posts a video of a Japanese businessman collapsing on a city bus, which feeds a global panic that turns survivors like Mitch into hyper-paranoid shut-ins.
Speed is both a key Contagion theme—the virus that multiplies faster than it can be tracked, the technology that sends (and constantly tracks) data and people quickly over vast distances—and the film's defining aesthetic characteristic. Soderbergh transitions between his interwoven stories at a rapid-fire pace, allowing a couple of seemingly major characters to disappear for long stretches and one to die with a startling lack of sentimentality.
Contagion is very much a Steven Soderbergh movie—as self-conscious a Hollywood entertainment as his Ocean's trilogy and as attuned to its moment as his 2009 experimental sketch of the economic crisis, The Girlfriend Experience. It is also part 1970s star-studded and story-bloated disaster movie and part 1870s satire-as-serialized-soap-opera, a pulp-pop confection with an unusually serious-minded social critique at its heart, tracing the chain reaction caused by isolated acts of selfishness, unchecked power, and a never-sated culture of newer, faster, better.