A big budget, mainstream Steven Soderbergh horror film was the last thing I’d expect from a director known for pushing the envelope on the indie scene. Soderbergh tests his audience with each and every diverse film he makes. He rarely stumbles and when he does it’s still top quality when compared to other directors working in the field. Contagion is no exception to this fact and even though it’s not as great as it should have been it still provides the viewer with true terror. It’s a horror film that doesn’t need blood and guts to get your stomach turning. Instead, it hits you with a cold dose of reality.
After returning home from a long flight from China Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) becomes deathly ill. She’s contracted an unknown virus that’s spreading across the world and causing a widespread panic. Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) doesn’t know what to do when she collapses and has a seizure. She’s taken to the hospital and dies shortly after arriving. What starts as a mysterious case of sickness quickly turns into a global pandemic.
Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) and Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) are assigned the deadly task of hunting down the origin of the killer disease and figuring out how dangerous it really is. As they uncover more information about the virus people begin to die at a rapid rate and the world switches into panic mode. Stores get robbed and homes get broken into as people resort to violence and anarchy.
An internet blogger/conspiracist by the name of Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) starts making wild accusations about the government and pharmaceutical reps teaming up together in order to get rich while the rest suffer. His blog continues to bring in millions of hits as he feeds his viewers with whatever conspiracy he can think of. While Alan is doing this; Cheever, Orantes and Mears continue their research in hopes of making a cure.
Contagion does a great job at giving you every single view point of a global pandemic. You get the view of an internet blogger, doctor, every day working man, military officer, lab scientist, young teenager and poor villagers. Say what you want about the depth Soderbergh gives to each character class, but you can’t deny how massive the scope is. The film feels large and it needs to be in order to make an impact on a level that will stick. Soderbergh captures the true fear of becoming sick and how easy it is to die.
It’s the collapse of the working society. Once one level gets taken down the whole system falls. Grocery stores stop stocking food, transportation stops transporting people and even things we rely on like 911 stops working. The true fear may start with the virus itself, but it quickly escalates into something much bigger. The comfort of not living like a wild caveman is stripped away from us as we watch people murder our neighbors with shotguns. That’s the true horror in Contagion. It’s something much more effective than blood and guts.
Steven Soderbergh understands that and his goal of making you feel uncomfortable sitting in a movie theater or riding on a subway train is accomplished ten minutes in. Walking out of Contagion you’ll start to notice people coughing around you and then you’ll watch as they touch the railing that your hand would have normally grabbed while exiting the theater. It’s a scary feeling that Soderbergh completely nails.
What he doesn’t get right is the other vital ingredient in making a successful film; an amusing story. He spends too much time jumping from character to character, rarely leaving you with one person for more than 5 minutes. Matt Damon gets the biggest chunk of story to chew on and even his scenes feel lacking of any real connections. There are just too many big stars in this film. Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet get the second best treatment, but each one of them appears for a few brief scenes until Soderbergh jumps to the next one. Guys like John Hawkes and Bryan Cranston show up for a few minutes and they don’t really leave a lasting impression. It’s like Soderbergh’s sole mission was to cast everyone he could find. The story would have benefited from a much more focused approach, but Soderbergh just couldn’t say no to Demetri Martin or Marion Cotillard when they came knocking on his door looking for work.
It’s unfortunate because Contagion could have been a lot better if Soderbergh would have buckled down to one or two stories. Having multiple small stories only takes away from the film. He gets the scale right and he understands how to scare you without showing you too much, but Contagion‘s lack of traditional storytelling is what makes it never reach its full potential. The ending might also leave you wanting more explanation, but I’ve slowly realized that it’s not about how a mysterious virus formed; it’s about how simple it is to throw the world into complete chaos.
Contagion comes to Blu-Ray with an incredibly strong 1080p video transfer. The film was shot digitally and it looks phenomenal. The picture is incredibly sharp and features great facial and texture detail. There are a few soft spots throughout the film, but that’s mostly due to the way Soderbergh shot specific flashback scenes. The color pallet ranges from slushy and cold grays in the snowy Minnesota to warm oranges in the heavily populated China.
The films 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track takes full advantage of all channels. Cliff Martinez‘s original score comes pumping in from the rear channels along with various surrounding effects like airport chatter, bone saws and crowded streets. While the dialogue stays focused on the front channels the rest of the track isn’t afraid to open up and make good use of all channels. The track is surprisingly active for a dialogue heavy film.
Contagion comes with three small special features that are focused on the accuracy of the films pandemic procedures and the extensive training stars Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburne went through to help authenticate their roles. They’re informative and insightful, but kind of dry. Check out the full list below.
- Contagion: How a Virus Changes the World (HD)
- The Reality of Contagion (HD)
- The Contagion Detectives (HD)
- DVD Copy
- UltraViolet Digital Copy
Contagion is another decent mainstream entry from a director who usually shines when he’s making independent films. It’s not as good as some of his previous films, but it’s still worth a watch. The biggest problem the film faces is the all-star cast that stuffs the film over maximum capacity. If Soderbergh could have cut down the story to focus more on Damon, Fishburne and Winslet’s sub-stories then Contagion could have been one of the better films of the year, but even with its problems it’s still a refreshingly scary film.
The Blu-Ray doesn’t come with a lot of extras, but it does come with strong video and audio transfers. Both manage to shine in their respective fields. The special features are worth watching if you’re interested in the authenticity of how the film plays out, but they don’t offer a better look into the actual filmmaking process or why Soderbergh chose to shoot certain scenes the way he did. I don’t actually recall seeing Soderbergh in any of the features. The package is your typical Blu-Ray/DVD/UltraViolet combo, so if you’re looking to own all copies this would be the best route to take.
Contagion could have been one of the better films of the year, but even with its problems it’s still a refreshingly scary film.