At the movies: 'Contagion': It's hard to miss the fever

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Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press.

Now playing:

“Contagion”

3.5 out of 4 stars

106 minutes

Starring: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne and Jude Law.

When your nose is stuffed up and you have the chills, it’s natural to curl up in the fetal position and feel like you’re awaiting the sweet release of death.

But, the symptoms of the common cold are nothing compared to what the people of the world face in a movie like “Contagion.”

When his wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns to their Minneapolis, Minn., home from an international business trip, Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) is expecting nothing out of the ordinary for their Thanksgiving holiday. Although Beth is feeling a little under the weather, the two of them chalk it up to jet lag — until she collapses unexpectedly, resulting in a visit to the emergency room from which she doesn’t come back.

Mitch finds that his late wife isn’t the only sudden victim of this sickness, as people all over the planet start to die by the thousands. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization are confounded by the rapid spread of the virus and at a loss as to how to keep it contained as they work for a cure. While doctors work around the clock to battle this new plague, the entire planet is reduced to living in fear and doubting that the powers that be are really trying to slow down the body count.

Damon leads the ensemble cast finely as the husband and father who quickly learns that he is somehow immune to the disease, leaving him free to do nothing but worry about keeping his teenage daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) free of exposure to infected folks. Oddly enough, that also entails limiting her contact with her boyfriend (Brian J. O’Donnell), but there’s a little more vigilance needed beyond the regular paternal concerns when Minneapolis starts to devolve into anarchy.

Paltrow’s role as the modern-day Typhoid Mary is brief but crucial when she is identified as Patient Zero while experts attempt to trace the disease’s origins from her stay in Hong Kong.

Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet function well as the CDC workers who quickly find themselves overwhelmed by their workload and the people that come with it. Hard to say which is worse — he has to collaborate with the poor handling of the Department of Homeland Security, and she is up to her eyebrows in debilitated, contagious sickies.

Marion Cotillard may have the least enviable role as a European epidemiologist taken hostage by the people of a Chinese village nearly wiped out by the disease who want fair treatment from the Western hemisphere.

Jennifer Ehle shines as the scientist working tirelessly for a vaccine, but she’s nearly eclipsed by Jude Law as Alan Krumwiede, a medical blogger who promotes a homeopathic cure and insists pharmacological companies are doing everything possible to profit from the chaos sweeping the globe. Seeing as he only adds to the frenzy, it’s too bad there aren’t any good computer viruses around when you need them.

Seeing Krumwiede walk the streets of San Francisco in a rigged biohazard suit oblivious to those dying right in front of him speaks volumes about how little people really care about their fellow man. Sure, there are a benevolent few, but when it comes right down to it, people can always be counted on to look out for No. 1.

But, this isn’t a heavy-handed morality tale like “Blindness” or the aftereffects of an illness like “28 Days Later” or AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” Given the right conditions, regular sick people are just as scary as zombies.

Director Steven Soderbergh injects a sense of disturbing realism into his latest movie, relying on a wide range of shooting locations, framing a cast that only needs to be shown coughing and dripping in sweat to be believable. What makes the whole ordeal so unsettling is the mirroring of panics like SARS, H1N1 and just about every other pandemic we’ve seen in recent years, blown up to unfathomable levels.

Soderbergh uses a light touch but gets it exactly right in showing that no matter how much preparation and forethought goes into preserving society, all it takes is one germ to turn the system inside out.

The pulsing pace of “Contagion” keeps us in constant anxiety as things go from OK to bad to near-apocalyptic, but the thought that human contact could be fatal is what really unnerves you. Nobody could accuse you of being a hypochondriac if you want to stock up on Purell after the movie ends.

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