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DRAMATIC

CONTAGION Drama. Starring Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Ehle. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Cert 12A

I'M a sucker for a good catastrophe movie, and when that film involves something threatening to wipe out humanity and is accompanied by cities around the world being flashed up with their population figures attached, preferably accompanied by mass panic in the streets, then I'm definitely on board. So Steven Soderbergh is playing to this particular gallery with Contagion.

Beginning with an offscreen cough -- believe me, by the end of the film you'll be staring daggers at anyone in the cinema who dares clear their throat -- we're straight into a scenario where an American executive (Gwyneth Paltrow) is on a trip to Hong Kong, stays overnight in Chicago with a former flame on the way back, and begins to feel unwell.

What Soderbergh immediately does is to rattle the audience by using ominous close-ups of everyday human contact in order to plant the idea of just how quickly a disease spread by touch and close contact could spread. Door handles, bowls of nuts on a bar, credit cards being passed in a hotel, elevators and surfaces on public transport become lethal as the disease spreads exponentially and with a high fatality rate.

It's a hugely impressive and all-too-plausible opening, and the film then gets into gear to show the effects of such an outbreak on the world over the course of a year.

The problem with such an approach from a dramatic point of view is that, by having several storylines overlapping, Soderbergh risks diluting the impact of the more interesting strands and characters. For example, Marion Cotillard's portrayal of a World Health Organisation epidemiologist despatched to China deserved more screentime than a subplot about a blogger (Jude Law with a dodgy Australian accent) who claims to have a cure for the disease. And a bit more backstory on Kate Winslet's selfless expert from the National Disease Control Center in Atlanta would also have given the film some more emotional heft.

Soderbergh captures the panic as the body count rises, law and order breaks down and the military have to take control of the situation as scientists search for a cure.

Matt Damon is his usual solid self as the first victim's widowed husband and you'd have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the sight of Gwyneth Paltrow's character's face being peeled off.

Expect sales of hand-wipes to soar if Contagion becomes the hit it deserves to be. HHHHI