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Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon and Laurence Fishburne

BIRD FLU TIMES 10: Matt Damon battles an epidemic airborne disease attacking the world in ‘Contagion.’ Courtesy photo.

I cannot remember a movie that tackled such an epic subject matter and yet felt so microscopic. It’s the greatest compliment and the greatest criticism I can lob toward “Contagion,” the new star-studded viral blockbuster from Steven Soderbergh. When I saw the lineup of actors set to appear in the movie, I thought back to star-filled disasters like “The Towering Inferno” or “The Poseidon Adventure.” The formula was always remarkably effective. Take a lot of talent, put them in a pressure cooker, and out comes a heaping helping of chicken-fried melodrama.

“Contagion” tries to flip the script by making a much more mellow cinematic pandemic. The virus is very real, and it’s killing a whole lot of people, but Soderbergh isn’t a traditional director. He has taken an intentionally lo-fi approach to the material. What we end up with is a procedural-style film that spends more time indulging in the social and political impact of a killer virus.

It starts simply enough. A businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) goes to China and picks up a nasty, new airborne disease and dies within moments of her introduction. It’s almost alarming how quickly the movie takes off. There’s very little setup before family members are dropping like flies. Her husband (Matt Damon) has to deal with the immediate aftermath, and try and protect the only remaining member of his family, a teenage daughter.

As the crisis unfolds, we are introduced to Doctor Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), the public face of the Center for Disease Control. He’s an even-tempered guy who tries not to get rattled as a simple outbreak spirals into a maddening descent. His team of medical specialists try and contain the situation. While scientists work on figuring out the virus, a medical investigator (Kate Winslet) is dispatched to the hot zone to set up quarantine.

There are a few other storylines wedged into the basic narrative. Marion Cotillard plays the world’s most unrealistically attractive World Heath Organization investigator who tries to track down the virus’ origins in China. Jude Law shows up as a sleazy Internet blogger who manages to manufacture hysteria and fear to help further his own career. The supporting cast is made up of a lot of familiar faces: Bryan Cranston from “Breaking Bad,” John Hawkes from “Eastbound and Down,” and even comedian Demetri Martin pops up. It’s a cavalcade of readily familiar faces.

What works for “Contagion” is momentum. This film moves fast and never stops for more than a few moments, going from story to story, character to character, at a fevered pitch. The entire film feels sterile, and strangely removed from the characters and events that unfold. A large ensemble piece with multiple narratives is nothing new to Soderbergh, who did it so masterfully in the Oscar-winning “Traffic.” The difference between the two are the stakes. “Traffic” characters felt three-dimensional, and drugs were the common element that linked the stories. There was depth to the stories, and the actors were given an opportunity to create a fully realized character in a limited amount of time.

“Contagion” has the same basic premise, but other than Matt Damon, none of the characters are allowed any nuance. They all have a particular role to fill and do an admirable job of efficiently playing them, but they aren’t memorable. The cohesion of a world-ending epidemic does nothing to bring weight to what should be life-and-death stakes. It’s all handled with such a delicate touch. There isn’t a moment in the movie where I felt like the world was on the brink of oblivion. Not even with all the shots of vacant, garbage-strewn streets or a mass grave being filled with bodies. “Contagion” has one note, and it’s played for the entire movie. Given all the talent involved, it’s kind of odd—like going to see Cirque De Soleil spend 90 minutes doing nothing but cartwheels. I like cartwheels, but I was expecting something a little more grand.

Soderbergh is a guy who rarely handles a project in a traditional way. He’s made a very quirky, extremely efficient movie. I’m hesitant to even call it a thriller because in reality there are no thrills. There are some interesting moments, and actors manage to exceed the bare material provided to them. That’s a feat considering the script comes across as if it were only 17 pages long and drunkenly scribbled on some napkins after someone saw a story on “60 Minutes” about the bird flu.

Still, it’s an interesting film—though not a terribly exciting one.

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