CONTAGION – Blu-ray review

When you finish watching this film, you’ll find yourself thinking twice about shaking hands with anyone.

Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film “Contagion” provides a dire warning of what could happen when we least expect it.  Pandemics have happened before, and, despite today’s best efforts and advanced technology, they can happen again.  The movie chronicles with almost clinical precision the fictional progress and consequences of a devastating worldwide epidemic against which science has no known vaccine.

A first-rate cast, excellent acting, and a reasonably taut pace help a somewhat lackluster and sometimes melodramatic story line over its more-predictable soft spots.  In fact, it’s probably the acting you’ll remember more than anything else long after you’ve finished watching the picture.  People like Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Eliott Gould, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, and Jennifer Ehle bring the plot to life with indelible performances.

Soderbergh is an eclectic filmmaker, embracing a variety of themes and genres in his pictures.  Some of the time he’s quite serious as in “Che,” “Traffic,” “Erin Brockovich,” and “Sex, Lies and Videotape”; sometimes he’s playful as in the “Ocean’s” series, “The Limey,” and “The Informant”; and sometimes he’s art-house mannered as in “Solaris,” “Full Frontal,” and “The Good German.”  With “Contagion” he’s in his serious mode, yet never slipping over into pretentiousness.

The first thing Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns show us in the movie is the number of times people touch things.  They tell us, for instance, that on average people touch their face about “three to five times every waking minute.”  Now, add in handshakes, finger food, doorbells, keyboards, hugs and kisses, and you begin to see the enormous opportunities for an exchange of viruses.

The movie covers its fanciful epidemic on both a personal and a global scale.  It begins on the personal level, with a woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning sick from a business trip to Hong Kong.  She has obviously picked up something, something that by the time she gets home she has already spread to dozens of people around her.  Her husband (Matt Damon) watches helplessly, in horror, as his wife’s condition deteriorates overnight.  We continue to follow his situation throughout the movie as he tries to protect himself and his teenage daughter from the plague that eventually sweeps through the world.

On a more far-reaching level, we see the efforts of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the DHS (the Department of Homeland Security), and WHO (the World Health Organization) to find a cure for a virus they have never seen before.  Yet even here we see the workings of these groups on a very individual level.  We meet the head of the CDC (Laurence Fishburne) and the government’s attempts to find a scapegoat for the agency’s inability to find a preventative inoculation fast enough.  We meet his field assistants (Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle).  We meet a doctor (Marion Cotillard) from WHO.  We meet an independent research scientist (Eliott Gould).  And we meet an investigative blogger (Jude Law).  Their stories intertwine as the movie counts out the days one by one, the deaths multiplying exponentially.

The movie is quite serious, as I say, calculated, and well paced.  Cliff Martinez’s sparse, terse musical score helps to create and maintain an atmosphere of tension and sometimes suspense.  It’s all pretty well done, with cities being quarantined, panic in the streets, and eventual riots.

However, some viewers may find its faults outweighing its merits.  There are several histrionic subplots, like a case of kidnapping and another of profiteering, that may seem extraneous to the main narrative.  In addition, the way Soderbergh tells the tale, it’s all rather documentary-like, cold and distant, despite his attempts to humanize it with the personal stories.  Worse, one has the feeling when it’s over that there wasn’t a lot to any of it the filmmakers couldn’t have told us in the first five minutes.  Both times I watched the film–in a theater and on Blu-ray–I wondered at the end, Is that all there is?

So, “Contagion” is kind of a mixed bag.  It’s got all the right ingredients for a convincing real-life thriller, yet it also seems so detached, so “scientific” as it were, that it misses some of the red-blooded emotion that might have elevated it to greatness.  You pay your money and take your chances.

The Warner video engineers use an MPEG-4/AVC encode and a single-layer BD25 to transfer the movie to Blu-ray in its native aspect ratio, 1.85:1.  As is his wont, Soderbergh shot the film digitally, meaning it has a soft, flat, tidy, sometimes dull, sometimes overly polished appearance.  It looks like a good television production, which is what I suspect a lot of viewers have become used to and what they want.  For myself, I don’t find the look attractive, and it does seem to me something of a waste of high definition.  Nevertheless, the image shows up on BD pretty much as I remember it from a movie theater.

WB provide English audio tracks in both 2.0 Dolby Digital and lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio.  Although the 5.1 surround doesn’t have too very much to do, given that this is a realistic drama and not an action blockbuster, it does a fine job clearly and cleanly reproducing the ambient sounds of music and environmental action.  Let’s say it’s more subtle than dynamic, a soundtrack you won’t much notice but which goes a long way toward reinforcing our subconscious impressions of the goings-on.

The highlights among the extras on disc one of this two-disc Combo set are three relatively brief featurettes.  The first is “The Reality of Contagion,” about eleven minutes long with the stars discussing the implications of a real global virus epidemic.  The second featurette is “The Contagion Detectives,” five minutes with the stars learning from actual experts in the field, keeping the film authentic to the science.  The third featurette is “Contagion:  How a Virus Changes the World,” two minutes on how viruses spread.  Hint:  Wash your hands.

The extras on disc one conclude with BD-Live access; a healthy thirty-five scene selections; English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish spoken languages; French, Portuguese, Spanish, and other subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Then, because this is a Combo Pack, in addition to the Blu-ray disc we get a DVD edition of the film in standard definition and an UltraViolet Digital Copy.  For those of you who still don’t know what UltraViolet is all about, it “allows you to stream via Wi-Fi and download to your computer and compatible Android, iPhone, iPod touch and iPad devices.”  The two discs come packaged in a flimsy double keep case, further enclosed in a thin cardboard slipcover.

Parting Thoughts:
“Contagion” has so much going for it–acting, directing, believability–that it makes me wish there were more story involved.  The movie is over before you know it, rather anticlimactically, and you have the suspicion when you’ve finished that there was not a lot of “there” there.  Nevertheless, it’s a scary, cautionary business while it’s unfolding, which is always the important thing.