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Contagion

Year: 2011
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Scott Z Burns
Cast: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cottilard, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould

These days there aren't many directors whose films I get excited about regardless of the story but purely because of who's behind the camera, but when it's a Steven Soderbergh movie you just know you're going to get something extremely high quality, smart, and made for adults.

Whether it's the docudrama on the life of Che Guevara in Che Part One: The Argentine, the cold, dispassionate look at the life of an expensive escort in The Girlfriend Experience, the folksy, semi-comic look at corporate corruption of The Informant! or the dark indie drama of Bubble, I've loved everything he's made.

He's a consummate filmmaker rather than just a storyteller, roping in established talents like Damon and Clooney as well as newcomers and wielding a huge toolbox of aesthetic styles and narrative approaches. The result is that every one of his films is completely different – increasingly rare in name directors today. As I write this review, he's just pulled out of the big screen redux of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a TV show I never watched but a film I would have rushed to see just because he did it.

So it was always going to be a treat to see the way he did a global-scale epidemic thriller complete with the menacing countdown ('Day 34' supertext, etc') and all the other trappings. I've heard criticisms Contagion is too clinical and detached and I can see how people would think so, but that's what I love about Soderbergh's movies – the way he can let the characters and script tell the story without relying on histronics.

While the mysterious flu ravages the human population and deserted city streets are piled ever-higher with garbage, Scott Z Burns' script follows the people on the front lines of the battles that arise because of the disease. Mitch (Damon) is married to Beth (Paltrow), the first victim, and when he loses her he tries to retain his reason as he protects himself and his teenage daughter in a world getting scarier and more dangerous by the minute.

Center for Disease Control director Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) is trying to manage a global effort that includes everything from wrangling and supporting field officer Erin (Winslet) in her investigation to fending off attacks from Alan (Law), a conspiracy theorist blogger who's just informed enough to be dangerous.

He's also trying to help scientist Ally (Ehle) in the effort to isolate the virus and produce a treatment on a mass scale – a process that usually takes far more money and time than the government has.

In her foolish and heroic final act, Ally might be the unwitting saviour of mankind but even then, Soderbergh manages not to veer into sci-fi territory – keeping things human, contemporary and realistic.

The script manages to sneak in social comment about everything from the politics of medicine to the decline of the print media and the whole package is a thriller that stays firmly in dramatic territory when it could easily have spun out of control to full-blown sci-fi. It's yet another high point in a masterful career.

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