Dir. Steven Soderbergh
(2011, PG-13, 106 min)

What’s interesting about Contagion you probably won’t notice except in hindsight: there’s no melodrama in it. The things we might expect to find in an all-star Hollywood thriller are notably absent here. There are no grandstanding speeches, no Jack-Bauer-of-the-CDC medical hero who plays by his own rules, no mustache-twirling evil general leading a government conspiracy, no Shyamalanian eleventh hour twist. It’s almost completely straightforward, built on the inherent tension of a storyline that, to be sure, doesn’t need any enhancement: a few sudden, isolated deaths around the world snowball into a global epidemic.

More to the point, Steven Soderbergh doesn’t need any enhancements. The eclectic director – who hopefully will not follow through on his threats to retire – has made small-scale indies (sex, lies, and videotape, Bubble) and large-scale prestige films (Traffic, Che), but he’s also a skilled director of popcorn entertainment. Ten years ago he remade Ocean’s Eleven into a joyously sly caper with a high-gloss finish. Now he brings a very different, but no less effective energy to an international disaster film. It’s coolly efficient, simmering in its intensity, and completely absorbing, focusing on a few characters through whose eyes we see the world fall into chaos.

But despite being played by A-list actors like Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, and Laurence Fishburne, the characters are drawn to human scale, from a civilian trying to protect his daughter from exposure (Damon), to a laboratory scientist who takes a risk to test a possible cure (Jennifer Ehle), to the World Health Organization representative who finds herself in unexpected danger (Marion Cotillard), these are not superheroes or crusaders but rather average individuals in extraordinary circumstances. We can relate to them easily because they’re not very different from us, give or take a doctorate or two, and that ground-level realism makes the premise believable, and thus more frightening.

It’s precisely Soderbergh’s subtlety and restraint that make this large-scale premise work as well as it does. Consider the way he builds tension in early scenes with closeups of touches, hands, objects – points of disease transmission so small that they escape the attention of pretty much anyone who isn’t a hypochondriac. These aren’t overwrought touches – no sneezes accompanied by dramatic musical chords – just an observant camera highlighting minute but catastrophic moments, events as small as microbes and just as deadly. The devil’s in the details.