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If this were a better film, it could do for the sales of hand sanitizer what Sideways did for Pinot Noir.

This is not a bad film. It’s well-produced, well-acted by a first-rate cast, and diligently convincing in its scientific details. Unfortunately, it maintains an emotional distance between the audience and its characters, and this serves to keep the film from being truly engrossing.

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The story opens as Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), a traveling executive, returns from a business trip to China, but she’s not feeling very well. The next day, she collapses in the kitchen and her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), rushes her to the hospital. She dies and the doctors are at a loss to explain why. As a distraught Mitch returns from the hospital, his baby sitter calls. His son, home sick from school, has also collapsed. The paramedics arrive to late to save his life as well.

Doctors at the CDC and World Health Organization are scrambling to get a handle on the disease, which is spreading quickly and doesn’t match any known viruses. HMO Dr. Orantes (Marion Contillard) flies to China to trace the original of the epidemic, while Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) from the CDC dispatches Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) to trace Beth’s movements and determine how far the disease has spread. The news is not good.

In one way, the movie is similar to Black Hawk Down, with epidemiologists replacing Army Rangers, in that we get no really sense of this people’s lives outside the situations caused by the epidemic. The plight of Matt Damon’s character, as he and his surviving daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) try to cope with the devastating loss of his step-son and her step-mother, as well as the dangers posed both by the epidemic and the panic that it causes, is the film’s most affecting subplot. It does not place the characters in artificial danger or a hyped-up race against time. Two people simply cope with the situation as best as two ordinary people can.

As well as that subplot works, another one involving a conspiracy-mongering blogger (Jude Law) who’s actually shilling for a pharmaceutical company feels tacked-on and unnecessary, not at all organic to the rest of the movie.

I’m disappointed that the film is not more gripping, because it has the capacity to be genuinely terrifying. As it stands, Contagion feels more like a slickly-produced training film for the CDC than a dramatic thriller.

But I’m still glad I got my flu shot before I saw it.

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