When it comes to scaring audiences, nothing does the job better than realism. Director Steven Soderberg's (Ocean's Eleven) cast may be filled with big stars and Oscar-winners (Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, and Marion Cotillard), but the tone and performances are down-to-earth. In Contagion an outbreak of a deadly new virus triggers panic on a global scale while scientists and health officials race to find a cure. It is precisely because this isn't a horror film that it's so effectively scary; the most accurate description would be a dramatic thriller.
This is a movie that thoroughly examines the painstaking and frustrating process of trying to stop a virus, the politics of fear, and the great compassion and courage (as well as opportunism and destruction) that people display in moments of crises. Indeed, it reminded me of Viktor Frankl's wonderful book Man's Search For Meaning, in that a person's true character comes to light when their life and the lives of others are threatened. Contagion also provides a sobering and frightening reminder of what the total breakdown of society is like.
The direction is gripping and creative and the pacing is nearly-perfect: Soderberg knows when to speed a scene along and when to let it breathe. He gives his actors a lot to do and they all shine, especially Damon, who continues to be a main contender for the greatest actor of this generation. His relationship with his little surviving family provides the film's greatest warmth and heart (as well as it's most heartbreaking, moving, and bittersweet scene towards the end). This is a well-rounded, attention-grabbing film that just may motivate you to wash your hands a whole lot more.
CONTENT OVERVIEW: Contagion is rated PG-13. It has some foul language, including one-use of the f-word. A graphic scene involving an autopsy will likely cause cringing and shuddering. There is panic, looting, and implied violence as society unravels, and dead bodies taken by the disease. There is no sexuality, though a woman's affair is mentioned.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: Preparation alleviates fear. Compassion is the greatest tool we have, and the greatest aspect of our humanity.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.