I picked a bad week to watch Contagion. Literally, within hours of finishing the flick, I started feeling this burning/itching sensation in the back of my throat, my nose got all tingly, and my eyes started to water. When I awoke the next day, I was coughing up chunks of my innards like Doc Holliday in Tombstone, and, once the fever-induced delirium kicked in, was all but certain death had come knocking at my door. Of course, I was only suffering from what amounted to be a mild bug, brought into the house by the walking bacteria factory that is my 8 year old niece. She passed it onto my son, and, well, it’s working its way out of the house as I type this. Still, there was a moment there where Soderbergh’s sobering and chilling movie had me wondering if I, too, had brushed hands with Patient 0.
Typical of all of the director’s films of late, Contagion is an ensemble piece that feels more epic than it actually is, thanks mostly to its high wattage cast and Soderbergh’s clever cinematic sleight-of-hand. It starts with a young American named Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), who, while en route home from a business trip to Hong Kong, falls ill. She’s picked up at the airport by her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon) and Beth’s son from another marriage, Clark, whereupon she’s taken home to recuperate from what all concerned think is nothing more than a little cold amplified by a massive case of jetlag. As Beth’s condition further deteriorates, Clark is dismissed from school, displaying similar symptoms. Ultimately, Beth is hospitalized and dies, and her son succumbs to the disease soon after. Interspersed with this are scenes of a Japanese businessman and a young Chinese casino worker both becoming ill and dying within a few days’ time.
The C.D.C and W.H.O. are immediately mobilized, with the former’s Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslett) being sent to the American Midwest to investigate Beth’s death, and the latter’s Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotilliard) being dispatched to Hong Kong where it is believed this potential pandemic originated. Soon there are cases around the globe, with hundreds of thousands either dead or dying. Knowing that a vaccine is a long ways off, Washington forces C.D.C. spokesmen, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), to downplay the virus’ probable impact, and urge calm as a vaccine is developed. This opens the door for disgraced journalist-turned-conspiracy blogger, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who has been investigating the pandemic since its outset, to use his influence to not only sway public opinion, but potentially profit off of his audience’s fears with claims of an all-natural cure that the government and pharmaceutical companies don’t want the world to know about.
Contagion is a fast-paced and truly terrifying cautionary tale that offers a very intimate look at mankind facing its own extinction. Usually films of this nature are either horror or action oriented vehicles meant to scare or entertain (or both), and, ultimately, end with either a heroic last-minute discovery that saves mankind (Outbreak), or one of those “pull the rug out from under you” endings that all but ensure its destruction (ummm…pretty much everything else). I have fun with these sorts of flicks, but they hardly ever make me think. Contagion, however, made me think. Not only did it make me think; quite frankly, this movie scared the ever-loving shit out of me. I think the main reason for this is that, instead of approaching the material with the usual “event movie” sonic bluster, Soderbergh handles it all very quietly and intimately, with an emphasis on personal experience rather than plopping each of his characters into grand apocalyptic set pieces where they take a backseat to the horrors unfolding around them. Take, for example, Mitch’s fight to keep his daughter free from infection, or Cheever’s agonizing over the death of one of his doctor’s in the field. These are the human (or, in the case of the profiteering Krumwiede, inhuman) stories that are at the forefront of Contagion. Yes, we are given the occasional glimpse of military blockades, mass graves, and societal upheaval, but they are fleeting and serve to underscore each of the main characters’ respective plights. It’s a bit like a thinking man’s version of those old Irwin Allen movies, where a half-dozen or so marquee stars are each saddled with their own quasi-vignette. My only major complaint is that Soderbergh packs the film full of so many characters and sub-stories that some feel undeveloped (or, in the case of Cottilliard’s Dr. Orantes, forgotten altogether). Still, the stuff that works here works so well that it was easy for me to overlook these minor missteps and embrace Contagion as a truly riveting and chillingly realistic thriller it is.
Contagion comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Brothers, and sports a solid 1.78:1 transfer. Colors are somewhat muted, with an emphasis on (appropriately) sickly grays and blues and greens, but there are some occasionally vibrant bits, especially evident in the pre-breakout flashback sequences in Hong Kong, where reds and warm hues dominate. The overall image is sharp and there’s no shortage of fine detail, but, at the same time, it’s all a bit flat and one-dimensional, when paired with the unassuming and rather bland 5.1 DTS HD soundtrack, I don’t see this title being the sort of thing AV enthusiasts will be breaking out to show off their systems to their friends.
Extras are curiously sparse, especially considering the film’s pedigree. We’re given a trio of “blink-and-you’ll-miss-them” featurettes, and a collection of trailers for other Warner releases. Anyone who’s heard one of Soderbergh’s myriad commentary tracks on not only his own films, but several other titles by other filmmakers, knows the director isn’t shy about talking about movies, so the lack of at least a commentary track here is surprising.
Contagion isn’t a horror film, nor is it your typical Hollywood-style end of the world thriller. What it is, however, is much more frightening.This quiet meditation on the frailty of our species and the way in which a seemingly innocuous natural occurrence could literally wipe us off the face of the Earth is downright chilling stuff.