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Stumbling out of the end credits of "Contagion," the engrossing medical thriller out now, you may feel like audiences did 40 years ago when they left the spookily calm ending of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" and noticed just how many birds were outside. The director Steven Soderbergh's vision of an epic viral outbreak — think H1N1 squared — resonates in the same vein of quotidian danger. The fast-moving virus, which kills its human host after just a few days of brutal flu, passes from person to person via innocuous contact: shaking someone's hand, handling a used martini glass, touching a door. Soap and hot water never felt so good after a movie.
The prime carrier for this carnage is a vivacious executive (Gwyneth Paltrow) who brings the bug back to Minneapolis after a trip to Hong Kong. As deaths crop up around the world, it isn't long before a conspiracy-minded blogger (Jude Law) is trying to peddle the story of the mystery flu, and the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization are scrambling to gather data, and to develop treatments and vaccines. Laurence Fishburne puts his generally stiff and stentorian delivery to good use as a CDC administrator trying to stay in front of the outbreak; Marion Cotillard plays a researcher working for the World Health Organization; and Kate Winslet sallies into the epidemic in Minnesota to gather data and to tell people to stop touching their faces so much. (See, you're doing it even now! This is how germs are spread, you know.) Matt Damon plays the husband — eep, make that widower to Paltrow's patient zero.
This being a Soderbergh pic, you're in for a pulsing soundtrack thick with electronic percussion and light-industrial synth, along with a lot of quick cuts, and a heavy hand on the color-corrections in post-production. But don't worry: It all flows, and the strength of "Contagion" is that it doesn't indulge in any of the supposed crowd-pleasing tropes of the disaster genre. This vision of doomsday isn't much for car chases or shootouts or CGI or sappiness. The selfless daughter who sticks with Damon's grieving husband, for instance, soon thinks of him as an overprotective pain. Far from "28 Days Later" or "The Stand," it doesn't imagine the total collapse of government and society (or the rise of quasi-zombieism). Rather, the virus in "Contagion" is merely bad enough to pause the world economy, close schools, ground flights, enrage nurses' unions, keep police at home, touch off looting and food riots and require mass graves. Upending a parade of pandemic flicks that leave no misfortune unimagined, "Contagion" displays restraint, and thereby stakes claim to that most frightening dimension: relative plausibility.
The timing of the release, coinciding as it did with the dirge of 9/11 anniversary coverage, cannot have been accidental. "Contagion" makes comparisons, in the midst of the epidemic, to the influenza outbreak of 1918 that killed 1 percent of the world population, and although it never puts a hard number on the death toll for its imagined virus, it might be somewhere in the low hundreds of millions. Next to this scenario, an attack that kills 3,000 is scarcely a rounding error. But flu has killed between 3,000 and 50,000 people in the United States every year for the past three decades. Never forget to wash your hands.