After Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) suddenly dies after holidaying in Hong Kong, her son dies shortly afterwards after the same symptoms. Her husband (Matt Damon) appears to be immune from the flu-like disease.
Meanwhile, further cases are being spotted worldwide and Dr. Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne) of the Center for Disease Control must team up with the World Health Organisation before the situation spirals out of control, sending his agents (Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard) into the field to identify the source of the infection and find a vaccine.
More often than not, any huge viral outbreak coincides with a science-fiction movie involving disturbing mutations that leaves 99% of the population wiped out only for the few remaining people to heroically save the day. If the outbreak hasn't occurred, then the film's villain is almost certainly in control of a potentially deadly disease and he is holding the world ransom over it.
Contagion, as you can guess, is neither of these. There is no singular villain to weaponise the flu; Laurence Fishburne observes that in reality the birds do the job for us. It is this deep sense of realism that is most frightening aspect of Contagion leaving you with the feeling that if anyone coughs in the cinema then they ought to be quarantined immediately.
Director Steven Soderbergh doesn't help your sense of panic. As he cleverly leaves the camera hovered on a surface after someone touches it you become more conscious of how easily a deadly flu could travel and, combined with his increasing population numbers, how quickly it can travel in only a few days. You may feel more comfortable leaving the cinema in a radiation suit, glaring at anyone who gives any sign of having the sniffles.
After looking at the big names that Contagion boasts, it is difficult to imagine how Soderbergh managed to persuade them to take on the film. Contagion isn't a film that allows the stars to showcase their acting skills, preferring to focus more on the larger issue and perhaps some will draw the conclusion he could have saved some money by hiring lesser known actors. Despite this, there are some supreme acting scenes - especially the scenes involving Paltrow's brief illness and death at the start of the film. Jude Law is also impressive as the sleazy money-grabbing blogger who tries to flog his own herbal remedy during the crisis. As expected though with this style of movie, the actors are criminally underused.
Kate Winslet's appearance is brief at best, while Matt Damon looks bewildered at his first appearance in a long time where he's not the lead. Lawrance Fishburne, though, is given just enough scenes to help lend his steadying hand to the situation.
Of course, it really doesn't matter that these well-known actors are under-used. Movies are designed to keep us entertained and to thrill, frighten and amuse us. Contagion certainly does all of those - and enough to wish you never knew the word pandemic.