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In the opening scenes of the gripping new drama, “Contagion,” Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) is planning her return home to Minnesota from a business trip to Hong Kong. Beth coughs while talking on a phone, dismissing her symptom as “jet lag.” The day after her return, she has a seizure in her kitchen in front of her terrified husband, Mitch (Matt Damon.) Mitch calls an ambulance, which rushes her to the hospital. Shortly after arriving at the hospital, doctors tell a stunned Mitch that Beth has died. Soon after, Beth’s young son also has a seizure and dies.

The deaths of Beth and her son are the first in a series of unexplained deaths around the world. Within hours of the news, scientists from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and World Health Organization in Geneva are called in to diagnose the disease. The worldwide death toll mounts daily. Parallels to everything from AIDS to Swine Flu to SARS are studied. As the virus spreads, concern quickly gives way to fear and panic.

Director Steven Soderberg and writer Scott Z. Burns get the audience’s attention right away with these disturbing images of worldwide death. “Contagion” is the kind of no-nonsense movie that grabs the audience from the opening scene, continuing on at a breathless pace. Photography, editing, and a pulsating score all contribute to great effect. If your palms are not sweaty after the first 10 minutes, you have a lot more nerve than I!

Despite the best efforts of government and health agencies, fear rapidly develops into panic, then full blown chaos. Using the media, authorities plead for calm, with less and less success. Makeshift hospitals for the sick and dying are set up in stadiums. People loot supermarkets and pharmacies. Gasoline stations run out of gas and close, as do airports. States close their borders, allowing no one in from neighboring states.

Into its second hour, “Contagion” loses some of its effectiveness. The audience has seen so many horrific images of death, fear and panic they begin to seem redundant. To counter these scenes, Soderberg and Burns return, via flashbacks, to Beth’s trip to Hong Kong to try to determine the causes of the epidemic. It’s an effective technique, as is its return to Mitch and his daughter, Jory, who try to survive, not only the virus, but also the ensuing chaos. The Minnesota family brings a human face to the global catastrophe.

Despite its weaker second half, “Contagion” redeems itself at the end with a final scene with Beth in Hong Kong. In a brief scene, we put the pieces together and understand what must have happened.

“Contagion” is a reminder that we are a global village. With jets crisscrossing the globe every day, a virus can indeed move undetected from continent to continent, infecting millions by casual contact. It’s ironic that the last movie I reviewed, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” concludes with an image of a global epidemic as well. Health precautions are a real concern as we tend to see hand sanitizers everywhere today.

Even with our interconnectedness, “Contagion” is also a reminder that fear can exploit differences such as class and nationality. It raises the issue of access to information, medical care, food, and services. Do some people have more of an inside track than others? Is this just? Images of the aftermath of Katrina and other disasters come to mind.

“Contagion” is not perfect, but it is an entertaining movie that has kept me thinking about serious issues in the few days since I saw it. I also put extra hand sanitizers around church this weekend.

Tom Condon, OP