The silver screen regularly treats us to views of the apocalypse. We constantly see aliens, robots, earthquakes, and nuclear weapons destroy, enslave, and/or annihilate the Earth and its inhabitants. The goal of these films is, of course, enjoyment, to show us something we've never seen before and to thrill us to no end. Often, they succeed, and that's one of the reasons we see so many entries into the genre.
For the newly released on Blu-ray Contagion, Steven Soderbergh takes that basic apocalypse formula and turns it into something a good deal more frightening. There are no aliens from outer space out to destroy the world in the film, there is only an infectious disease, a super-bug, and it does the job far better than aliens on the big screen have in many a year.
What is more impressive about the movie than the broad swaths of humanity which we're told have been dispatched by the disease, is the amount of fright the film gives within individual moments. Contagion boasts a large cadre of stars including Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, and Gwyneth Paltrow, and while they offer up good—and intense—performances, their characters are awfully shallow. This isn't a movie which is concerned greatly with character arc as much as it is concerned with presenting a completely and wholly believable depiction of how a disease could go about killing a great number of us. As Jude Law says about the scenario in general in one of the bonus features, according to the film, it isn't a question of if this sort of thing (deadly virus wiping out millions) will happen, but when.
The characters then are there to provide us with some touchstones so that we can feel the destructive force of the virus more personally and see how humanity can go about saving (some) of itself. Matt Damon is the distraught husband/father who looses two of the people he loves and has to protect the third. Kate Winslet is the on-site investigator who must fight tooth and nail to find out what is happening with the virus and to establish quarantine protocols. Laurence Fishburne is the expert at the CDC who must balance what he knows about the virus and what he can say. Jude Law is the reporter out to make a name for himself despite the seriousness of the disease. They are all relatively one-note characters, but as the performances are earnest and excellent, they succeed at the necessary task of sucking the viewer in and the virus takes it from there.
From start to finish, Contagion is intense. The film runs 106 minutes, but Soderbergh's direction of Scott Z. Burns' script is gripping enough that well before the credits roll, you'll start wondering about that little tickle in the back of your throat.