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Video: Watch the 'Contagion' trailer

IMAGE: Matt Damon in "Contagion"
Warner Bros
Matt Damon's wife turns out to be Patient Zero in a worldwide pandemic in "Contagion."
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updated 9/8/2011 12:18:49 PM ET 2011-09-08T16:18:49
REVIEW

The calm is what's so startling in "Contagion" — the cool precision with which Steven Soderbergh depicts a deadly virus that spreads throughout the world, quickly claiming millions of victims.

There's no great panic in his tone, no hysteria. Soderbergh has amassed a dazzling cast of Oscar winners, but this is not like those '70s disaster movies that had melodrama to match their star power.

Characters become increasingly confused and frustrated, they struggle to survive and then die in a matter-of-fact way. Even the eventual instances of looting and rioting that crop up — as they are wont to do in these kinds of movies when societal rules have long since been abandoned — feel like blips of intensity, understandable reactions to an incomprehensible situation.

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Story: Gwyneth Paltrow adds to list of gruesome death scenes

Working from a script by Scott Z. Burns, who also wrote his 2009 comedy "The Informant!" Soderbergh takes us from suburban living rooms to labs at the Centers for Disease Control to remote Asian villages with equally clear-eyed realism. The attention to detail — and to the infinite ways germs can spread that we probably don't want to think about — provide the sensation that this sort of outbreak really could happen right now.

Slideshow: End-of-the-world movies (on this page)

"Contagion" begins with Gwyneth Paltrow's character, Beth, coughing as she reaches into a bowl of peanuts at an airport bar on her way home to Minneapolis from a business trip in Hong Kong. This is Day 2, we are told, and she will end up being Patient Zero. With the help of a low-key but propulsive electronic score, Soderbergh steadily focuses on the hands as he jumps from Chicago to Tokyo to London in these early scenes, fluidly revealing how we pass our credit card to a waitress or grasp a bus railing or press an elevator button.

CDC scientists excited about 'Contagion

Kate Winslet's character, the steely Dr. Erin Mears, who thrusts herself into the vortex as the virus starts developing, offers a chilling statistic to some skeptical medical administrators: We touch our hands to our face 2,000 to 3,000 times ... a day. I don't even want to finish writing this review for fear of what's lurking on my own laptop. But I must.

Slideshow: September movies: 'Moneyball,' 'Abduction' (on this page)

As Soderbergh did in the superior "Traffic," he intertwines various story lines to give us a complete picture of the devastation. Matt Damon, as Paltrow's stoic husband, Mitch, tries to stay strong and protect his teenage daughter as it becomes clear that they're both immune. Jude Law, believably skeevy as an online journalist with questionable ethics, digs for the truth of the story — but government scientists are just as keen on stopping the spread of information as they are the disease itself.

Story: Scariest films are those that could really happen

Marion Cotillard gets a bit lost in the shuffle, though, as Dr. Leonora Orantes of the World Health Organization, who's working backward to find the disease's origin. She's gone for large chunks of time and her plot line feels unfinished; it's an example of how, given the enormity of the cast and the subject matter, not all of the characters are fleshed out as well as you'd like them to be.

But then excellent character actors show up and lend weight to some of the smallest parts: Hey, there's John Hawkes as a janitor. There's Bryan Cranston as Laurence Fishburne's boss at the CDC. And you'd like to see more of them, too.

theGrio slideshow: Laurence Fishburne's top roles

Despite all the big names crammed together, Jennifer Ehle might just steal this thing as Fishburne's right-hand woman, Dr. Ally Hextall, who's racing to find a vaccine even as the number of dead skyrockets. Like the film itself, she's got an irresistible cool about her. But she's also so confident and radiates such no-nonsense intelligence, she commands the screen every time she shows up. (And how great is it that three of the top scientists here are strong, decisive women?)

Her performance represents one of many elements of "Contagion" that will make you stop and think. And then wash your hands.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: September movies

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  1. 'Apollo 18'

    Stars: Lloyd Owen, Warren Christie

    Director: Gonzalo López-Gallego

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    Think there wasn't an "Apollo 18" lunar mission? Think again. Decades-old found footage from the supposed secret expedition reveals the reason the U.S. has never returned to the moon. Hint: Didja see "Alien"? (The Weinstein Company) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 'The Debt'

    Stars: Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington and Tom Wilkinson

    Director: John Madden

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    "The Debt" begins in 1997, as shocking news reaches retired Mossad secret agents Rachel (Mirren) and Stefan (Wilkinson) about their former colleague David. The group supposedly tracked down a Nazi war criminal in 1966 -- or did they? (Miramax Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 'Shark Night 3D'

    Stars: Sara Paxton, Dustin Milligan and Alyssa Diaz

    Director: David R. Ellis

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    The title, "Sharl Night 3D," says it all. But sharks in a freshwater lake? Hollywood will do anything to get the blood, bikinis and severed limbs flying in 3-D. (Relativity Media) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 'A Good Old Fashioned Orgy'

    Stars: Jason Sudeikis, Leslie Bibb and Tyler Labine

    Directors: Alex Gregory, Peter Huyck

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    In "A Good Old Fashioned Orgy," Jason Sudeikis and pals have partied for years at his dad's beach house. But when dad (Don Johnson) announces he's selling the place, his son decides it's time for the ultimate party. (Samuel Goldwyn Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 'Contagion'

    Stars: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Jude Law

    Director: Steven Soderbergh

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 9

    Have your face masks ready -- you'll want one after seeing "Contagion." The action thriller follows people trying to survive a lethal virus. Big stars abound, and it sure looks like from promos that things don't go well for Gwyneth Paltrow. (Warner Bros) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 'Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star'

    Stars: Nick Swardson, Don Johnson and Christina Ricci

    Director: Tom Brady

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 9

    "Bucky Larson" is a kid from the Midwest who moves out to Hollywood in order to follow in his parents footsteps -- which for him, means becoming a porn star. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 'Warrior'

    Stars: Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte and Joel Edgerton

    Director: Gavin O'Connor

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 9

    In "Warrior," two estranged brothers face the fight of a lifetime. Nick Nolte plays their alcoholic dad, who trains one to eventually land in the ring against the other in a mixed martial-arts tournament. (Chuck Zlotnick) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 'Straw Dogs'

    Stars: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth and Alexander Skarsgard

    Director: Rod Lurie

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 16

    "Straw Dogs" is a remake of the 1971 Dustin Hoffman thriller, infamous for its controversial rape scene. L.A. screenwriter David Sumner relocates with his wife to her hometown in the deep South. There, while tensions build between them, a brewing conflict with locals becomes a threat to them both. (Screen Gems) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 'I Don't Know How She Does It'

    Stars: Sarah Jessica Parker, Pierce Brosnan and Kelsey Grammer

    Director: Douglas McGrath

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 16

    "I Don't Know How She Does It" is a comedy centered on the life of Kate Reddy (Parker), a finance executive who is the breadwinner for her husband and two kids. Based on the best-selling novel. (The Weinstein Company) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 'Drive'

    Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan and Bryan Cranston

    Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 16

    In "Drive," Gosling plays a Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a wheelman. After a heist goes wrong, he discovers that a contract has been put on his life. (Richard Foreman Jr Smpsp / FilmDistrict) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 'Moneyball'

    Stars: Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright and Jonah Hill

    Director: Bennett Miller

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 23

    Brad Pitt stars as Oakland A's manager Billy Beane in "Moneyball," based on Michael Lewis' book. The focus is on Beane's attempt to create a competitive team despite Oakland's unfavorable financial situation. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. 'Abduction'

    Stars: Taylor Lautner, Lily Collins and Alfred Molina

    Director: John Singleton

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 23

    In "Abduction," Taylor Lautner plays a young man who sets out to uncover the truth about his life after finding his baby photo on a missing persons website. (Lionsgate) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. 'Dolphin Tale'

    Stars: Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr.

    Director: Charles Martin Smith

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 23

    IThe 3-D film "Dolphin Tale" is is inspired by the true story of a bottlenose dolphin named Winter who lost her tail in a crab trap. Her human friends work frantically to create a prosthetic so she can still swim. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. 'Dream House'

    Stars: Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and Naomi Watts

    Director: Jim Sheridan

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    The beautiful home in "Dream House" is more of a nightmare. Soon after moving in, a family learns that a mother and her children were brutally murdered there. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. '50/50'

    Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick

    Director: Jonathan Levine

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    "50/50" is a comedic account of a 27-year-old man's cancer diagnosis, and his subsequent struggle to beat the disease. (Summit Entertainment) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. 'Killer Elite'

    Stars: Jason Statham, Clive Owen and Robert De Niro

    Director: Gary McKendry

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    Action film "Killer Elite" focuses on a retired member of Britain's Elite Special Air Service (Jason Statham) who is forced into action when his mentor (Robert De Niro) is taken hostage. His mission: kill three assassins dispatched by their cunning leader (Clive Owen). (Open Road Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. 'What's Your Number?'

    Stars: Anna Faris, Chris Pratt and Chris Evans

    Director: Mark Mylod

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    "What's Your Number?" refers to the number of men a woman has slept with. Anna Faris plays Ally, a woman whose number is 20, as she looks back at those men wondering if any of them are her true love. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. The Weinstein Company
    Above: Slideshow (17) September movies
  2. Image: Matt Damon
    Jordan Strauss / AP
    Slideshow (42) Matt Damon
  3. Columbia Pictures
    Slideshow (30) End of the world as we know it

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