'Contagion' Spreads To No. 1 At The Box Office

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The director Steven Soderbergh likes to make Hollywood movies about serious issues. "Erin Brockovich" was about water pollution, while "Traffic" was about the drug trade. And now he's taking on global pandemics in his new movie, "Contagion."

In spite of the grim subject matter, it was number one in its debut at the box office over the weekend. And we have a review this morning from film critic Kenneth Turan.

KENNETH TURAN: It starts with a cough. It ends with death on an unimaginable scale. "Contagion" shows us 30-something days in the life of a global pandemic, a lethal virus that travels like the wind and kills without a trace of mercy. This may not sound like entertainment, but it certainly keeps your eyes on the screen.

The face behind that opening, unseen cough belongs to Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays a traveling businesswoman just back from a trip to China. She tells husband Matt Damon that she thinks what ails her is some minor bug - except it's not.

(Soundbite of movie, "Contagion")

Unidentified Man: Mr. Emhoff, I'm sorry, your wife is dead. In my best guess, is that this was either meningitis or encephalitis. And with encephalitis, we're in the dark a lot of the time. Herpes can cause encephalitis.

Mr. MATT DAMON (Actor): (as Mitch Emhoff) She didn't have herpes. What are you talking about? What happened to her?

TURAN: Determined to leave no sick person behind, "Contagion" swiftly takes us around the world, exposing us to a panoply of desperately ill individuals, who disintegrate and die right before our eyes. After seeing how easily the virus spreads, even touching your car door on the way home will take an effort of will.

A plague this lethal inevitably involves Atlanta's Centers For Disease Control and Prevention and its unflappable deputy director, played by Laurence Fishburne. He sends one of his best investigators, Kate Winslet, to see what's going on.

(Soundbite of movie, "Contagion")

Mr. LAURENCE FISHBURNE (Actor): (as Dr. Ellis Cheever) As of this moment, you and I are attached at the cell phone. If you even need resources, call me. If you get into a political dogfight, call me. If you find yourself wide awake, staring at the walls at 3 A.M. wondering why you took the job, call me.

TURAN: Director Soderbergh has never been the warmest of filmmakers, and that distance serves him well here. He's also working with a solid script by Scott Z. Burns, which posits that human arrogance, self-interest and stupidity are as dangerous as the disease.

As the merciless virus ravages the planet, the uncomfortable prospect that every last person on Earth may die before the final credits roll seems all too possible. If your idea of a good time is being convinced that a global pandemic could start tomorrow, this is the film for you.

INSKEEP: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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