I think a lot of people expected Steven Soderbergh's virus-spreading thriller 'Contagion' to be more action-packed with plenty of stilted, expository dialogue to go along with it. It wasn't, and that's what made it great.
The problem is thinking a movie about a viral plague spreading across the globe killing faster than anything we've seen under the reign of 21st Century medical science would be thrilling in the first place. It's a disease. Weapons of all kinds have been rendered null and void. It's a microscopic death dealer that doesn't lend itself well to action scenes. The 1995 movie 'Outbreak' tried its hardest to make a viral plague seem like an action movie. They even introduced a bomb and an overzealous military to make it even seem more like an actioner. While I love 'Outbreak' for its campy mid-90s Saturday morning movie value, I find 'Contagion' to be a much more accurate, much more frightening portrayal of what would happen if the world was faced with a plague this aggressive.
'Contagion' jumps around the globe following different characters as they come to terms, or try and deal with what is happening. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) isn't feeling so well. The movie opens on her in an airport. She's talking on a cell phone, and hacking like a seasoned smoker. Since we know that this movie is about an outbreak we're immediately on alert. Is she the first person to contract the disease? Or is she the one that will be carrying it to the United States? Or both?
Not too long after that the outbreak gains steam and we're introduced to a whole slate of characters that may be hard to keep track of at first, but Soderbergh keeps each storyline taught in order to make following them easier as the movie continues.
Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) is frightened when his wife suddenly drops dead in their kitchen. Now he's forced with trying to protect his daughter as the outbreak spreads. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) is a top ranking official at the CDC and has been put in charge of trying to find a cure. Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) is a CDC researcher sent into the field to try and find out exactly how the disease spreads. Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is a pioneering journalist/blogger who figures that the government has more to gain from this disease than they're letting on. Over in Hong Kong Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) has been sent by the World Health Organization to find out exactly where the disease originated from. All of these stories intersect as the outbreak soon spreads out of control.
The disease kills in mere days, but that's not the scariest part about 'Contagion.' This really is a study of how the mass public would act if faced with this situation. Fear is the real disease as the streets of America begin to look like post-apocalyptic messes the longer the film goes on. What is portrayed is something that is far too real, because while watching it we can envision something like this actually happening. A virus that spreads across the earth, and then the world's population going bonkers. Looting and killing. Trampling people in vaccination lines. It's a scary proposition, but sitting there it's easy to perceive how the human race can turn so easily when faced with desperation.
Soderbergh's direction here is flawless. There are no convenient plot devices here. No big "Ah-ha!" moments where someone figures out a relatively simply way of stopping the disease. He injects a constant state of unease. He isn't afraid to kill off the big name stars in his movie, which keeps you guessing on who is actually going to die. He accurately portrays a world gripped by fear. A world all too eager to cannibalize itself in the face of a disease that will wipe them out anyway.
You may have heard the saying of needing a shower after a movie; well after 'Contagion' you may feel like you need a complete disinfectant chemical rub-down. One thing's for sure you'll never leave the bathroom again without washing your hands.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Contagion' is a Warner release. It's been released in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack complete with an UltraViolet Digital Copy. The disc provided is a 25GB Blu-ray Disc. It's been coded for Region A use. The keepcase is standard for Blu-ray. It also comes with a slipcover, which features the same artwork as the case.
Filmed Digitally with a Red One MX camera Soderbergh still manages to keep 'Contagion' looking filmic. Its 1080p picture does have a slight digital sheen to it, something that may turn other viewers off a tad, but for me it felt more movie-like than many digitally shot films.
The color palette runs the gamut, mostly because Soderbergh uses a variety of lens tints to create whatever atmosphere he's going for. Yellows and blues dominate the look of the film. These filters are used more than anything else. Even though artificial filters are applied, much like Soderbergh did in 'Traffic' or 'Ocean's Eleven' the movie still retains a very natural appeal to it. Especially skin tones which stay consistently natural throughout.
Contrast is usually what suffers when movies are filmed digitally, but that doesn't seem to be a problem here at all. Flat blacks and dull whites are nowhere to be seen here. Blacks are deep and shadows are nicely delineated. I never witnessed a scene where crushing was present. Fine detail is present throughout the movie even at long- and mid-range shots. Textures like Winslet's wool sweaters and the pulpy matter inside Paltrow's head (just wait, you'll see) are perfectly discernible. I didn't notice any compression artifacts even though the movie has been pressed onto a small 25GB disc. Overall, I was very impressed with this presentation.
The audio is great too. First thing you'll notice about the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is the weighty presence of Cliff Martinez's techno-inspired soundtrack which thumps along adding much needed suspense to the visuals on screen. The only other movie this soundtrack can be compared to is 'Hanna.' Frankly, it's an unusual choice, but it works perfectly here.
LFE pumps along mainly because of the thumping soundtrack which kicks into gear right at the start. Rear speakers are full of ambient sound. As a sick man stumbles through the crowded streets of Hong Kong, people rush around him. Voices can be heard everywhere. A truck enters the scene and seamlessly transports itself through the sound field. A man collapses on a bus and frightened onlookers gasp and try and help all the while the rear speakers are full of their voices. Like the movie itself, the audio mix will truly envelop you. No loud explosions or gunplay, but sound is used rather wisely here. When silence is needed the mix all but turns off, creating an even more eerie situation.
This is a subtle track, but one that is effective in its purpose.
I was really, really hoping for a Maximum Movie Mode to be included here, sadly the special features department is quite slim with 'Contagion.'
Personally, I thought 'Contagion' was one of the most thrilling movies of 2011. There weren't any car chases and gunfights, but Soderbergh didn't need any of that to make his movie suspenseful. Its atmosphere is one of dread and uncertainty. Making you wonder what you would do in that situation and if you're even ready to face something as catastrophic as this. It's an effective thriller indeed. With strong audio and video this one comes recommended for anyone who wants a smart thriller to add to their collection.