Like any disaster movie, Contagion is trying to scare you. It just does it in a more reasonable manner. There are a couple of Hollywood touches, and the timeline for the virus' spread up to the administering of a vaccine is accelerated for plot convenience. But the overall nature of the pandemic is plausible. This isn't a zombie virus, or something with a 100% mortality rate. It is somewhat more potent than the real diseases that have killed millions by spreading around the world. Director Steven Soderbergh chooses to look at the big picture, rather than through the eyes of ordinary people on the ground. The scenes of societal breakdown are there, but they're mainly there to mark the passage of time. The film keeps them at arm's lengths. Rather, the emotional tension comes from the scientists and doctors struggling to stem the spread of the virus.
Unlike most populist films which portray corporations as inherently evil, and science running amuck creating freaks of nature (Rise of the Planet of the Apes being a recent example), Contagion takes a slightly more ambivalent approach. Not that corporations and governments can't be secretive, manipulative, avaricious, or even blind to the concerns of the average person. But when the origin of the virus is finally revealed, it's as much a product of blind chance as it is to human foibles. In contrast to large institutions, the individual doctors studying the virus are an altruistic bunch, whether they're from the CDC, WHO, or a private lab. Their dedication is admirable as it is low key and fruitful, to the point of dying in the line of duty. Yay, scientific method!
Where Contagion does have an axe to grind is on the people who profit from spreading false information, fear, and paranoia. Soderbergh doesn't attack his colleagues in Hollywood or the mainstream news media. That would be too obvious. He goes for new media types instead, embodied by a snaggle-toothed blogger (played by Jude Law) who irresponsibly spreads conspiracy theories about the world's governments and big pharmacies temporarily suppressing a cure in order to make a huge windfall later, while peddling an ineffective homeopathic remedy of his own. He must have gotten his ideas from some stupid Hollywood movie plot. Amiright?
That's the blatant double-meaning of the film's title - that memes can be as destructive as actual viruses. The sentiment gets boiled down to a simplistic pronouncement muttered by one of the film's heroic doctors (played by Elliott Gould) "Blogging isn't journalism! It's graffiti with punctuation!" Nice burn, doc! One point for the old guard.
Soderbergh's montage-like cinematography is particularly suited to this story. Like his previous movies, Soderbergh assembles an impressive ensemble of A-list and character actors: Lawrence Fishburne gives a measured performance, and anchors the film, as a CDC director, Jennifer Ehle is a dedicated virologist, Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard are intelligent epidemiological investigators. The film does a good job in portraying women as competent scientists. Then there's Gwyneth Paltrow who unwittingly brings the virus back to the US and becomes its first American casualty, and her sympathetic husband Matt Damon. Most of them don't interact directly with each other, as they're tackling the virus in their respective capacitis in different parts of the world. A clever thing about killing-off Paltrow so early is that it forces the audience out of any complacency. No character is exempt from death. Not even the famous ones.
If I had to sum up the message of Contagion, it's "let cooler heads prevail." While not preaching blind trust, it does ask us to not give in to wild speculation. Let the scientists get on with their jobs. When the outbreak first gets the attention of the Department of Homeland Security, they send a couple of their spooks to question Fishburne about whether it's possible someone weaponized SARS or the Bird Flu virus. "Nobody needed to do that" he replies, "The birds are doing it themselves."