A black screen. The sound of a harsh cough. We are already alert when, soon after, we see a bartender pick up a customer's coin and then punch numbers into a cash register. Germs, we're thinking. "Contagion" is a realistic, unsensational film about a global epidemic. It's being marketed as a thriller, a frightening speculation about how a new airborne virus could enter the human species and spread relentlessly in very little time.
This scenario is already familiar to us through the apparently annual outbreaks of influenza. Not many of them cause as much alarm as swine flu did. The news chronology is always the same: alarmist maps, global roundups, the struggle to produce a vaccine at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, the manufacture and distribution of supplies of this year's "flu shot."
The virus in "Contagion" is a baffling one, defying isolation, rejecting cure. This film by Steven Soderbergh is skillful at telling the story through the lives of several key characters and the casual interactions of many others. It makes it clear that people do not "give" one another a virus; a virus is a life form evolved to seek out new hosts — as it must to survive, because its carriers die, and it must always stay one jump ahead of death. In a sense, it is an alien species, and this is a movie about an invasion from inner space.
The cough we hear at the outset is from Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), a Minneapolis woman traveling home from Hong Kong. Soon her son dies. She follows. Her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), apparently immune, is incredulous that death could so suddenly devastate his family. An investigation uncovers a secret visit that Beth made during a stopover in Chicago — but no, she didn't contract the virus through sexual contact, the way AIDS seemed to spread.