Watching this movie will convert thousands to the ranks of the germophobes. As fast as you can say, “Bats on pigs.”

Gwenyth Paltrow, always eminently watchable, plays the innocent who is among the first to contract the disease. She’s in Hong Kong on business for an American firm. She has a layover in Chicago , which she utilizes for, er, “extracurricular activities,” which doesn’t really advance the story but does add some pathos of a different kind.

By the time she finally returns home to her loving husband, played by Matt Damon, she is already coughing. Soon she is nauseous. Next she starts to feel numbness is in her hands and feet, and then she faints. Soon comes the convulsions and the foaming at the mouth. It won’t be long now.

Kate Winslett plays the doctor at the disease control center, the one who’s supposed to come in and find out what happened, isolate the cause, develop a vaccine, and save the world. The problem is, she’s not immune herself, and her constant exposure leaves her just as vulnerable as everyone else.

Damon, for his part, seems to be immune, but nobody knows why. Researchers are furiously working on various vaccines to attempt on rhesus monkeys, but the trials, in order to be scientifically verified, cannot be rushed. Meanwhile, as the contagion spreads, panic sets in.

This is the most realistic and harrowing part of the film. Those who are sick suffer briefly with the knowledge of their imminent and inevitable demise, but it’s soon over for them. As for the rest, well, they get to live in perpetual fear of catching the dread disease. And they get to witness the false rumors of miracle cures (naturally, something homeopathic). There’s a run on canned food, bottled water, batteries, and dry goods, and as soon as the supplies run short people just start taking from each other. Then everyone goes home trying to protect themselves and their property, including the police, fire department, paramedics, and hospital workers. And so the chaos begins to descend. There’s trash all over the streets because nobody’s picking it up. There are mass graves with bodies deposited by bulldozer because no mortician wants to, well, undertake the task. Can anarchy be far behind?

But wait, this isn’t “The Road,” and there isn’t a pall of despair over the whole earth, as in Cormac McCarthy’s classic rendition of instant descent to the Dark Ages. No, there’s more optimism here, about human ingenuity that will overcome the selfishness, and people still committing random acts of love because they’re so winsomely inconsistent.

“Contagion” doesn’t really concentrate on the horrors of millions of people perishing almost instantly, feeling that a few personal demonstrations will suffice, and the rest can be reported by the ubiquitous reporters. Since this is Hollywood, the gadfly is a blogger, a man who is able to spread rumors online without credentials or verification, and nobody can really stop him, because he’s so confident in his false bravado that’s he managed to convince himself of his own indispensability. Jude Law is a good enough actor to pull off this role without seeming to be too self-consciously ironic, though the implied criticism is clear.

“Contagion” does a very good job of building the suspense, but falls a little flat while releasing it. Since it won’t settle for cheesy invincibility (some big stars really die in this one), it can’t manage triumphant, either. So it’s not as much as a crowd-pleaser as it might have been, because there’s no humor, and no real romance, either.

But it does, at least, tell us at the end how it all began, and that full circle will have to provide enough sense of completion. Bats and pigs, indeed.


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving