Imagining how another director might have handled Contagion is a fun thought experiment. The subject matter—a highly communicable and deadly flu virus sweeping the globe—is the stuff of shrieking headlines and showy thrillers. Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) might have given the movie a gritty, grimy look with a panicky moving camera and a grim air. J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) might have created a glossy sheen with a few bravura action sequences and an underlying streak of sentimentality. Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum) might have made it unbearably tense and hyper-realistic and fast-moving. Michael Bay (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) might have, I don't know, lustily panned up the legs of a Victoria's Secret model and blown a lot of shit up.
But Steven Soderbergh directs Contagion, and he brings his typical coolly imperturbable style to a story from which one expects perturbance, so to speak. The tone of the movie often feels oddly detached from the terror and death onscreen, as if we're looking over the shoulder of a disinterested (but not uninterested) alien. That keeps Contagion from being thrilling, but it also keeps the movie from being sensationalistic, and without a frantic buzz, the movie is able to explore quieter moments behind the scenes and offstage entirely. Paradoxically, its very detachment makes it humane.