DVD Release Date: January 3, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: September 9, 2011
Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing content and some language)
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Run Time: 105 min.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Actors: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Elliot Gould, Jennifer Ehle

Germaphobes beware: Watching Contagion will only kick those frequent hand-washing tendencies into overdrive.

But even if you’re not the one who immediately reaches for an antibacterial wipe after touching a doorknob, Contagion will make you all too aware of just how easily sickness can be passed from one person to another. And unlike many disaster movies (2012, anyone?) where fantasy and reality seem veritable light-years apart, the filmmakers do a fantastic job of creating a foreboding sense of doom that feels very real in Contagion—just one of the movie’s many strengths.

In a mere five minutes, the film’s ominous tone is perfectly set when we see Gwyneth Paltrow’s (Country Strong) character, Beth Emhoff, getting ready to board a flight back home. After spending time in Hong Kong for business, she’s eager to get back to snowy Minneapolis, where she, her husband (Matt Damon, The Adjustment Bureau) and two young children live. But before she even boards her final flight in Chicago, we see her coughing, which is basically movie code for her imminent demise. And in what won’t be a surprise to anyone who’s seen the film’s trailer, Beth, not to mention her young son, end up dying the next day after having several mysterious seizures.

Naturally, local doctors are befuddled by her death, considering that Beth was a healthy young woman with nothing more than your average cold-like symptoms. But her autopsy reveals something even scarier—the presence of an airborne virus that’s also claiming lives in London and Hong Kong, too. And as the camera zooms in on ordinary people doing everyday things like shaking hands with strangers, touching their faces and kissing loved ones, you know the prognosis for mankind can’t be good. In fact, what plays out is so scary that you’re instinctively inclined to make sure there’s enough distance between you and whomever you’re seated next to at the theater.

Like director Steven Soderbergh did so well in 2000’s Traffic, he effectively utilizes an all-star cast and provides several intriguing perspectives, not to mention relevant social commentary, on the unfolding events. Whether it’s a big-shot (Laurence Fishburne, TV’s CSI) at the Center for Disease Control, the well-meaning official (Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road) who’s dispatched to Minnesota to try and control the growing pandemic or the conspiracy blogger who has a stake in getting the word out about a possible homeopathic cure (Jude Law, Sherlock Holmes), each plays a significant role in this fascinating what-if scenario.

While not as action-packed or stunt-heavy as most films of the ilk (a welcome change of pace in our 3-D-obsessed world), Soderbergh eschews the normal scare tactics for something far scarier—a tremendous sense of urgency you’re personally invested in. With each passing day, the world’s body count only seems to grow, and not even the promise of a vaccine can guarantee that everyone will be safe. If anything, the situation only exposes the ugliest parts of human nature and man’s inherent survival instincts, no matter who gets hurt in the process.

Officially ushering in the fall movie season with a potent mix of substance and style, not to mention terrific acting performances from everyone, especially Damon and Law, Contagion memorably captures a world that’s gripped by crisis and panic. Feel-good entertainment, it’s definitely not, but for anyone who enjoys engaging in a little post-movie conversation, well, the opportunities are practically endless with Contagion.

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