The opening minutes of "Contagion" are all surface, literally. A bowl of peanuts on the bartop, a swiped credit card, an elevator button, the human hand: each is a vector of death itself, a pandemic already in motion. With the rasp of a cough, a title card tells us we're in "Day 2." It's terrifying.
On first seeing Steven Soderbergh's speculative fiction about the worldwide outbreak of a killer virus, though, it felt too chilly, a clinician's explanation of apocalypse. But on repeated viewing this sterile quality comes to be more frightening than open panic. "Contagion" understands the mechanics of death, and the mechanics of life, too. The global scourge we're told is coming will not only be harrowing for its physical toll, but also for its concomitant rending of the social fabric, challenging us to resist the human impetus to shake hands, to kiss, to dance, to hug.
The film falls flat when it skids into fervor, whether blurry, fevered shots from the victims' point of view or an undercooked subplot in which a World Health Organization epidemiologist working in China (Marion Cotillard) is held hostage in return for doses of vaccine. Another thread, featuring a fear-mongering blogger (Jude Law) profiting from his false claims for the curative powers of an herbal remedy, actually curdles; saddled with screeching voice and snaggletooth, he's histrionic almost to the point of being unwatchable.
Every time he came on screen I wished for more of the film's hero — not Matt Damon's brave Everyman, keeping his daughter safe as the world collapses around them, but Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), a cool, rational CDC scientist in charge of developing a vaccine for the virus. In an ensemble with a surplus of star power, Ehle walks away with the movie. Clear, calm, and direct, it may be the year's most underrated performance; there's no show to it, but it's central to understanding why, in the end, "Contagion" works as a hyperrealist vision of civilization coming apart at the seams. Visiting her dying father, she becomes the guinea pig of her own inoculation, and saves the world in the process. She pulls off her surgical mask and touches his face with a shine of feeling. Here is the warmth I was looking for, after all, from the coolest of cool customers.
If "Contagion" at its best is almost a Merck Manual of viral transmission, "Children of Men" (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) is a hot-blooded screed — it became known, after all, for a breathless seven-minute tracking shot during a refugee camp bombardment in which blood even spatters the lens. Though the source material is P.D. James' novel "The Children of Men," Cuarón's film is a distinctly post-9/11 creation, brimming with not-so-subtle allusions to Fox News jingoism, xenophobia, environmental disaster, mad cow disease, "democratic" police states, and capitalism run amok. If Occupy Wall Street made a movie, "Children of Men" would be it.
It works so well, though, because such allusions feel uncomfortably close: the London of 2027 depicted in the film, like the pandemic in "Contagion," seems no great leap forward. The world of "Children of Men" has not seen a child born in 18 years. Infertility is rife, religious fundamentalism rampant, the only challenge to state authority a pro-immigrant political faction and sometime-terrorist organization called The Fishes. Yet there's a glimmer of hope by which civilization may start anew. Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a young African woman, is pregnant, and The Fishes' peaceful leader, Julian (Julianne Moore) hopes to help her escape the country. When Julian is assassinated, Kee's care is given over to Julian's ex-husband, Theo (Clive Owen), who must save her from The Fishes' new plan to use her as a political symbol for "The Uprising."
Their journey to the ark of "Tomorrow" is of a piece with other entries in the action-apocalypse genre, assassinations giving way to car chases, suicide bombings replaced by gunfights. But it's expert genre filmmaking, sharp and quick-witted. That tracking shot is infamous, I'd suggest, not only for its technical audacity but for what follows: when the cut comes there's silence, a momentary peace, as everyone pauses in awe at the miracle of Kee's child. If it's not as accomplished as I thought when I first saw it, awestruck to the point of speechlessness, it's still a worthy attempt to piece together where we are going from where we have been. In fact, it's more like "Contagion" than I realized: all surfaces, reflective of what we're ever in danger of becoming once the end is near.