Before you see a single frame in "Contagion" you listen to a cough, and by the time the movie is just a few minutes old Gwyneth Paltrow's Beth Emhoff — the character heard hacking off-screen — suffers a fatal seizure (relax, it's in the trailer).
MEV-1, the fictional virus with the starring role in director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns' pandemic thriller, is nearly as deadly as 1918's Spanish flu (an estimated 50 million killed worldwide), but the filmmakers are less interested in mass graves than epidemiological war rooms. "Oh, my God. Should I call someone?" a coroner asks when he examines Emhoff's brain. Replies his colleague: "Call everyone."
Constructed much like Soderbergh's "Traffic" — overlapping, international narratives linked to the central plot — "Contagion," which opens Sept. 9, has far more in common with Albert Camus' "The Plague" than "I Am Legend" or "Outbreak": How does civilization react — for better and worse — to a global health crisis? "A lot of really dangerous human behavior," Burns said, "comes out of fear."
Suddenly widowed, Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) tries to protect his daughter as the virus races from Hong Kong to Chicago, Minneapolis, London and Tokyo, triggering quarantines, quack cures and panic. While the mutating virus marches forward in time, "Contagion's" epidemiologists and molecular biologists struggle to rewind the clock; only in discovering how and where MEV-1 originated and spread can it be understood and controlled.