Going viral

Bodies pile up in 'Contagion'

There's a horrible virus loose in "Contagion," but the good news is it seems to kill mainly actors.

Like Gwyneth Paltrow, as you probably know from seeing her convulse in the ubiquitous TV commercials. Fans who see this on top of her booze-pill overdose in "Country Strong" are probably wondering if she should have her head examined.

Which - gross! - actually happens here, on an autopsy table. It's a highly graphic scene which seemed to strike the preview audience as incredibly funny.

If director Steven Soderbergh was going for shock and horror and emotional impact (Paltrow is one of several million victims in the movie's rampaging virus scenario), he doesn't quite get there in "Contagion."

You're more likely to pick up on the sardonic and bleakly funny thread to "Contagion," a movie that on the surface is a look at how catastrophe reveals moral strength in some, moral weakness in others.

Examples of the latter are everywhere, embodied in Jude Law, an Internet blogger who uses the disaster to hype an herbal cure for the virus, and takes perverse satisfaction in his 20 million unique visitors even as he strolls through streets piled high with the dead, rampaged by looters.

On the side of moral strength are scientists (Elliott Gould, Jennifer Ehle) who work tirelessly and at great personal risk - ditto for a Centers for Disease Control field worker played by Kate Winslet, sent to Chicago to interview the immune husband (Matt Damon) of patient zero (Paltrow).

Caught in the moral middle is CDC director Laurence Fishburne, who must decide whether to use his special knowledge of the rapidly spreading bug to warn loved ones inside danger zones.

There is a sprawling international cast here, and Soderbergh often loses track of it. Much as I like gawking at Marianne Cotillard, I couldn't make much sense of her role here as a World Health Organization worker tracking the origin of the virus in Asia. I don't know how, or why, you'd lose track of an actress like that, but Soderbergh does, and the ethical/narrative dimensions of her character's murky story thread (how to dole out limited vaccine supplies) seem not to have been worked out.

This disaster-movie ethos is only part of the equation here. There's usually more to Soderbergh's stuff than meets the eye, and that's certainly true of "Contagion," which makes unflattering comparisons between the rampaging virus and the toxic spread of unreliable information via the Internet.

You can read that as an attack on anti-vaccine hysteria, but it surely goes deeper, to the difficulty of vetting any information that spreads, peer-to-peer, like an infectious disease.


Directed by Steven Soderbergh. With Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Bryan Cranston, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sanaa Lathan, Laurence Fishburne, Matt Damon. Distributed by Warner Bros..

Running time: 1 hours, 45 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for disturbing content and some language).