Contagion doesn't open with a bang. It opens with a cough.
The masterful opening of the sound of a woman hacking while the screen is still black is the first introduction the audience gets to MEV-1, the fictional virus which sweeps the world in Steven Soderberg's star-studded Contagion.
That woman is Beth Emhoff (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), a woman from Minneapolis who gets what seems to be the flu on her way back from a business trip in Hong Kong.
What seems to be the flu, of course, kills her the next day (not a spoiler: it's on the poster!) and kicks off a worldwide epidemic which weaves through America and Asia before spreading across the ocean to the United Kingdom, the rest of Europe and, ultimately, the globe.
When the trailer for Contagion began making the rounds a few months ago, it was hard not to be struck by just how damn vanilla the whole concept looked. There seemed to be little or nothing at all to differentiate it from other disaster movies involving a super virus; it looked like a high budget version of any number of 1970s grindhouse flicks which depicted the human race inevitably being confined to a small island in the Pacific Ocean after a flurry of quarantines, grisly deaths and perhaps a zombie or two before the closing credits.
But amazingly, it isn't.
It doesn't have the fantastical turns of I Am Legend or the horrifying premise of The Thing, but Contagion does have the one thing which the vast majority of disaster films lack: realism.
Even at its most dangerous, the virus has only a 25 percent mortality rate – admittedly high but a far cry from the deathly viruses Hollywood films usually shove down our throats.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) was consulted throughout the production of the film, realistically predicting the breakdown of social order and how government agencies around the world would react to an uncontrollable pandemic.
The virus itself, a strain of the flu with components from both bats and pigs, is a brainchild of the CDC as something that could exist as a pandemic in the real world.
The format of the film is similar to Soderberg's drug drama Traffic, with many intertwining narratives from around the world detailing the spread of the virus as it picks up pace.
Soderberg brings in elements from unexpected directions, the most interesting by far being the fear mongering Alam Krumwiede (played by Jude Law), a bizarrely Australian blogger (he even forces out a "crikey!" at one point) who takes advantage of the lack of information from the government to champion an ineffective cure and profit from the subsequent sales.
His very inclusion in the film is the most interesting realization of the movie's tagline that "nothing spreads like fear" – and presents an examination of the unreasonableness of a panicked public in the digital age.
Other threads include a father (Matt Damon) struggling to deal with the virus in small-town America and his attempts to protect his daughter from other people, the hard-working CEC scientists who are the closest thing the film has to heroes and a doctor (Laurence Fishburne) who acts as something as a spokesperson to the global community on the issue of the outbreaks.
Soderberg deals with these various plot threads with the practiced ease of a man who has directed over 30 movies in his career. The cinematography, while not breaking any boundaries or stepping far out of the modern Hollywood film template, is done expertly and is littered with various small touches that help to lift the film even further above its B-movie counterparts – the subtle lingering shots on bus rails and tables after infected people touch them and the aforementioned coughing in the blackness stick out.
This attention to detail extends to Soderberg's direction and the script's pacing with elements such as the gradual phasing out of shaking hands as the virus intensifies and actors frequently touching their own faces (the average person touches their face 3000 times a day, we are told) adding even more realistic depth. The acting, too, is tremendous, with the ensemble cast all providing at least functional and at best great performances.
That being said, the film does have its drawbacks. The film never builds up that much tension, even during rioting scenes, and some of the story lines are a little too predictable (Marion Cotillard's in particular).
But these are minor issues in a movie which could be full of far more major ones. It is an entertaining Hollywood blockbuster which actually challenges not only the perceptions of a genre but the perception of modern panic in general.
Bottom Line: A refreshing change from Hollywood's usual disaster-rubbish fare, Contagion is well worth a watch for someone who has loaded up on hand sanitizer before going to the cinema.
4.5 out of 5 stars