“Contagion,” Steven Soderbergh’s smart, spooky thriller about a thicket of contemporary plagues — a killer virus, rampaging fear, an unscrupulous blogger — is as ruthlessly effective as the malady at its cool, cool center. Set in the world-is-flat now, the movie tracks a mystery pathogen after it catches a ride on a flight from Hong Kong to Chicago, an early hop for a globe-sprinting pandemic that cuts across borders and through bodies as effortlessly as Mr. Soderbergh moves among genres, styles and eras, this time by updating 1970s paranoia freakouts like “All the President’s Men” for the anti-government, Tea Party age.
Among the first casualties is an executive, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), who, shortly after returning home from Hong Kong, is twitching on her Minneapolis kitchen floor, mouth foaming and eyes glassing over. Was it the moo goo gai pan? Not exactly, her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon in a small, crucial, sympathetic performance), soon learns. And that’s something you learn quickly in turn: Nothing moves slowly here, especially the disease, which, within days, cuts down seemingly everyone who’s been within touching, kissing, handshaking, dice-blowing distance of a carrier. Like the ladies in the old shampoo ads (“I told two friends about it and they told two friends and so on”) Beth just keeps on giving.
Working with regular collaborators like the writer Scott Z. Burns, the composer Cliff Martinez and the editor Stephen Mirrione, Mr. Soderbergh invests the story with visceral urgency, opening it with a screen steeped in black — an intimation perhaps of the looming abyss — and the sounds of a few hard, rasping coughs. This almost deviously funny overture is followed by a close-up of Beth wearing a sheen of sweat and no visible makeup, the image stamped “Day 2.” Listing forward, as if she was about to throw up on the camera tilted up at her, she looks about as bad as Ms. Paltrow probably can, given the ugly situation and the queasy-beautiful yellowish light that Mr. Soderbergh expressionistically employs throughout.
She doesn’t vomit, but your own gorge may rise when the camera shifts from Beth — who takes a flirty call from her unseen lover, her wedding ring gleaming in the shot — to linger briefly on a jar of shelled peanuts set on the airport bar in front of her. Beth may be (relatively) bad, but those peanuts are murder, as is the credit card she hands to the waitress. The story subsequently hopscotches to several other people — a young man stumbling through a Hong Kong market, a Japanese salaryman grimacing on a plane and a model staggering in London — who flash in and out of the movie . Like Beth, whose young son, Clark (Griffin Kane), welcomes her home with open, vulnerable arms, each proves to be part of the lethal puzzle.”
“. . . The virus seriously rattles your nerves, and you may want to start stockpiling antibacterial soap now. Yet what’s really scary in “Contagion” is how fast once-humming airports and offices, homes and cities empty out when push comes to shove comes to panic in the streets.
“Contagion” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It contains gun violence, multiple on-screen if nongory deaths and a graphic autopsy during which a human head is peeled like a banana. “