Over the years, director Steven Soderbergh has established himself as something of a chameleon: social dramas, biopics, epics, caper films, action movies, satire of the political and non-political varieties, he's done them all, always with a stylistic flourish on the material that could come from no other filmmaker, and to my mind, he's done them all pretty damn well* It's no surprise, then, that his first out-and-out thriller, Contagion, should manage to be a resolutely satisfying example of the form, though it's pleasures are honestly of the sort you get watching a beautifully convoluted piece of clockwork ticking through its motions in exquisitely machined perfection. Off the top of my head, I am tempted to say that this might be the shallowest film of the director's career, in fact, or at least the one that has the least interest in the lives and personalities of its characters, and the least "to say"; Contagion has one goal in mind, and it meets this goal fantastically well, but it does virtually nothing else.

After some coughing over black, the first two things we see are Gwyneth Paltrow's face looking rather gooey for a glamorous movie star, even one who hasn't really been much in the public's imagination for a good decade now; and the words "Day 2" imposed in a chilly, sans serif font in bright red. Hacking idly, Paltrow (playing a character named Beth Emhoff) touches a table, a waiter's hand, a doorknob, and the film jumps into a montage of germ transmission showing how in a matter of hours, those little coughs could spread hundreds of miles. It's a brave way to start a movie, insofar as Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns can assume that nobody is seeing Contagion by accident, that the whole audience is aware already that this is a movie about a terrifying killer disease, because if the audience doesn't walk in with that knowledge, the opening is just sort of a hodgepodge of confusing, half-baked ideas. And of course, Soderbergh and Burns are able to make that assumption, because that's how the world works, but it still annoys me in some unnecessarily nitpicky way when a movie starts off without bothering to set up its premise. Still, since we do know what is about to unfold, that opening "Day 2" is foreboding as all hell - whatever is going on, it's too late to stop it, with the suggestion being not unlike those old '50s sci-fi message pictures that take place "Next Week" or thereabouts that what we're watching could be taking place in our actual reality right this second.

At any rate, Beth returns home to Minnesota after screwing her ex in Chicago, after flying in from Hong Kong, and in all of these places she manages to pass on a virus she picked up along the way, and from there we're off to a big sprawling tale of how an epidemic begins and is fought in the globalised world of the 21st Century, courtesy of a massive cast of famous people including Laurence Fishburne as the Centers for Disease Control bureaucrat leading the American response to the disease, Kate Winslet as one of his subordinates on the ground in Minnesota, Marion Cotillard as a World Health Organization doctor searching for the virus's origination in Hong Kong, Jennifer Ehle as the CDC research scientist working on creating a vaccine, Jude Law as a conspiracy-minded antigovernment blogger hawking a natural treatment, and Matt Damon as Beth Emhoff's husband Mitch, who survives his wife's shockingly swift death thanks to a natural immunity and thereby becomes the film's eyes on what happens to human society in the face of such an unrelenting, even apocalyptic disease (and who, having the only character with much characterisation and emotion to play, manages to win Best in Show honors by default, though Ehle does the best with the hand she's dealt, and the best single moment belongs to Winslet, realising to her horror that she has contracted the virus & dealing with what needs to be dealt with before she becomes incapacitated).

There is no protagonist as such in this slurry of faces and events, and not a story as that term is classically imagined: just forward momentum in the face of the film's actual main character, the MEV-1 virus. Soderbergh and Burns set out to create a realistic, globally-oriented depiction of what would perhaps happen in such circumstances, who would panic and who would muddle through and what would cause people to start fracturing and breaking apart, and Contagion is a horribly plausible embodiment of their goal. Like the director's Traffic, the film explores all the connections, from the most obvious to the most subtle, that link the teeming mass of modern society, but where Traffic is almost Dickensian in its world-as-theater storytelling ambition, Contagion is as single-minded as its microscopic star: it wants to freak us out, showing how our life as globally-connected beings is both our greatest risk and our greatest hope for being able to survive whatever terrible and largely arbitrary things might happen to us (the explanation for MEV-1's origin is balanced right on the edge between "that is terrifyingly believable" and "that is ludicrous", and either way it's predicated on a series of entirely run-of-the-mill coincidences).

Everything is driven towards that end: Stephen Mirrione's machine-gun editing and Cliff Martinez's non-stop techno-inflected score, especially. Even the litany of famous people - I didn't name them all, either - serves mostly to emphasise the horror of the scenario (and make no mistake, though it lacks monsters, killers, or any but the most cursory nod in the direction of disgusting make-up, Contagion is as insatiable and effective a horror movie as 2011 is apt to see), given that right from the moment Gwyneth Paltrow buys it, barely five minutes into the movie, it becomes painfully clear that MEV-1 doesn't give a shit about star billing or celebrity. I am even moved to compare the film to The Thin Red Line, in fact, given the way that Soderbergh uses so many famous people as a method of underlining how impersonal his story really is: Matt Damon or Marion Cotillard are no more important, in the grand scheme, than any other human being when there's a plague on the loose.

A character study this is not, in other words, unless the character is that old bugaboo "Modern Society", and even then Soderbergh and Burns don't have much to say other than, "Faced with unstoppable widespread death, people will tend to act irrationally and selfishly", which has the merit of being generally accurate to make up for being absolutely unoriginal. And it's worth pointing out that two of the three subplots which most emphasise the breakdown of civility, Cotillard's and Law's (Damon's is the third), are the two most ungainly and poorly incorporated parts of the movie (alongside its general uncertainty about what to think about government: inefficient and corrupt, or the last hope for us all? Or maybe it's meant to be both, which I take as a sign of the filmmakers' healthily adult cynicism).

No, mostly this is about terror, good old fashioned realist terror of something that can't be seen or stopped or even slowed down, presented with maximum slick thrills courtesy of some talented people (let us not overlook Soderbergh's shiny and grotty work on the Red MX and Epic cameras, the bleeding edge of digital cinematography: not as important to the effect as the editing or score maybe, but damn nice too look at). The film raises some good points about The World In Which We Live, but that's mostly incidental to giving us 105 taut minutes of being certain that The World In Which We Live is doing its damnedest to Kill Us All Good. I can't stop thinking that there's something superficial in all of this, but the movie is so pounding and intense and convincing that I don't see the point in minding.

*In fact, I'm something of an indiscriminate fanboy, in that he's never made a single film I have disliked, a tremendous achievement given the size of his filmography. The Good German came awfully close, though.