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 of 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 has written off her sickness as jet lag in a phone call to her never-seen lover, Beth begins 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 World Health Organization epidemiologist assigned to trace the origins of Beth's illness by piecing together her last hours, as captured in multiple locations via apparently omnipresent surveillance cams. Laurence Fishburne is the Centers for Disease Control chief who sends deputy Kate Winslet to manage the crisis on the ground while he hunkers down at headquarters and tries to manage the message to the public — 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 hyperparanoid shut-ins. Bryan Cranston, Elliott Gould, John Hawkes, and Demetri Martin appear in small but crucial roles; Jennifer Ehle has a career-making part as the quietly brilliant researcher whom Soderbergh frames like an ingénue as she reels off jargon at an impossibly fast and mellifluous rate.
Speed itself is both a key Contagion theme — the virus that multiplies faster than it can be tracked, the technology that allows not only the quick transport of data and people over vast distances but also the constant tracking of that travel — and the film's defining aesthetic characteristic. Crafting staccato montages to a coolly insistent drum, bass, and piano score, 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. That character's burial is presented as a matter-of-fact marker of how bad things have become: The only ceremony over the mass grave in the center of a city is a dialogue exchange between bored workers about when the local government ran out of body bags.
Contagion is very much a Steven Soderbergh movie — as self-conscious a Hollywood entertainment as his Ocean's trilogy, and as microscopically 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. Think The Towering Inferno as done by Anthony Trollope.
Trollope's 1875 doorstop novel, The Way We Live Now, is an apt point of reference not just because its title could sub for the one Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns chose — their film might take place in a bizarro-world present, but it's all the more terrifying because of the methodic realism that makes it impossible to distinguish that bizarro world from life on Earth circa now. But also, Trollope's masterpiece turned a pop-culture craze — serialized novels that used real locomotive crashes as the starting point for ensemble soap operas — on its head. There's no actual train crash in The Way We Live Now; instead, the railway disaster is perpetrated by a con artist who convinces all of London society, high on the 19th Century's ultimate symbol of progress — the steam engine — to invest in a railway that will never be built. Greed and hypocrisy spread, well, virally, in the wake of technological change, and before you know it, society has collapsed on itself. Soderbergh similarly takes on pop Hollywood forms specifically to make them his own, and like The Way We Live Now, Contagion exists to trace the chain reaction caused by isolated acts of selfishness, unchecked power, and a never-sated culture of newer, faster, better.
An act of promiscuity might cause the virus's initial spread across continents, but Contagion implies that risky sex has nothing — in terms of long-term consequences — on the risky high-speed transfer of information. In a world where grief is expressed via texted emoticon before the body is buried, and web celebrities cause riot-panics as stocks spike with their blog hype, meme control becomes the official form of damage control. "Social distancing," the name given to the CDC's policy of virus containment via forced isolation of the healthy, is not only the literal opposite of "social networking" but also its potential endgame. At what point in the near future will we all stop leaving the house?
As prolific a worker as any in contemporary Hollywood, Soderbergh claims to be on the verge of packing in his career, which gives his movie a pretty interesting subtextual twist: Work, in Contagion, is fraught with mortal peril. The first victims are business travelers, while Damon's stay-at-home dad is spared and even turned into one of the film's least ambiguous heroes. If Contagion truly is the first leg of Soderbergh's retirement victory lap, this harrowing film is a potent reminder of what we stand to lose.