Contagion
Warner Bros. // PG-13 // $35.99 // January 3, 2012
Review by Adam Tyner | posted January 2, 2012
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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R E V I E W S
Graphical Version
Contagion opens as a woman gabs away on the phone and disinterestedly munches on a bowl of nuts at the airport. It's not a particularly remarkable sight, and the same can be said for her sickly pallor. Anyone strolling
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to their gate could tell with a passing glance that she's feeling rather under the weather, but there's no reason to give it more than a second thought. Within hours, she's convulsing on her kitchen floor, foaming at the mouth. Shortly after that, she's dead. Whatever this virus was that snuffed out her life so quickly has already started to wrap its fingers around the throat of the world at large. Everyone and everything with which she had come into contact has been tainted. It spreads with a touch, and its attack is as swift as it is fatal. Even with as quickly as the CDC and the World Health Organization are alerted to the threat, the body count continues to grow exponentially. The resulting fear and panic prove to be every bit as virulent...every bit as destructive.

Contagion explores the outbreak from a number of different perspectives the world over: a grieving father (Matt Damon) whose dead wife is somehow at the the epicenter of this catastrophe, a field agent for the CDC (Kate Winslet), a director at the agency (Laurence Fishburne) who struggles with the uneasy balance between politics, science, and dissemination, the epidemiologists tasked with deciphering this virus and hopefully discovering some sort of vaccine (among them Elliott Gould and Jennifer Ehle), an investigator with the WHO (Marion Cotillard) seeking out the source of the outbreak in the Far East, and a loudmouthed blogger (Jude Law) that skillfully shatters the barriers separating information and what government officials deem necessary to release to the public.

Although Contagion shrugs off most of the overcranked theatrics of a thriller, it certainly maintains that same level of intensity and intrigue. The threat is inescapable. It cannot be seen nor heard. Those who are infected quickly succumb. That can be said for both the virus itself as well as the fear and misinformation it spawns. Contagion is a remarkably fleet-footed film, opening with the outbreak already having begun embedding its claws into a couple different continents. Aided by skillful compositions and editing -- the camera silently lingering just a fraction of a second more than normal -- Contagion ensures that the simple act of someone touching a misplaced cell phone or letting go of a handrail can be astonishingly impactful. The virus spreads at a disturbingly alarming speed, and Contagion has a pace to match. Its 100 minute runtime is leaner than one might expect given the
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enormous scope of the film, and not a moment goes to waste. The sprawling ensemble is introduced on-the-go. Director Steven Soderbergh takes a predominantly visual approach to storytelling, wisely recognizing that viewers are savvy enough to follow along without having every last detail expressly spelled out to them. Sequences that'd normally be mired in dialogue and leaden exposition are instead pared down to montages. Contagion benefits further from the tremendous talents of its ensemble cast, propelled by their somber, intense performances. The film's aim for accuracy and authenticity ensure that Contagion is that much more haunting. Outbreak was an unmistakeably cinematic construction; it feels as if Contagion offers a glimpse of things to come. More than just a warning, it raises disturbing questions about what will happen if/when such an outbreak were to get a chokehold on the world at large...the many hurdles that face investigators...the staggering logistical challenges behind distributing a vaccine if one were even to be discovered...the fragility of a civilization that's so easily taken for granted.

Though Contagion's daunting scope and brisk pace are among its greatest strengths, the collision of the two leaves some characters feeling underutilized. Cotillard's investigator for the World Health Organization seems largely tacked on, for instance, and the subplot she's eventually saddled with is woefully uninvolving. The arc revolving around Law's blogger is interesting in concept but kind of grating in execution. Some of the other melodrama throughout doesn't ring as true as I'd have preferred. Such concerns are exceedingly minor and do little to diminish my enthusiasm for an otherwise remarkable film. The construction of Contagion is brilliant, attacking the outbreak from such a wide variety of perspectives. Soderbergh strikes a tremendous balance between the cerebral, the technical, the clinical, and the emotional elements of this story. The suspense and tension it draws are wholly earned, veering away from more familiar cinematic crutches. Not nearly enough praise can be lavished upon the talents of this ensemble cast, particularly Jennifer Ehle who I'll confess was previously an unknown quantity to me. Haunting, horrifyingly real, and very Highly Recommended.


Video
Contagion is the first feature film to have been lensed with Red's recently-introduced Epic line of cameras, and it looks terrific. Unlike the Red One which tends to have somewhat flat contrast and a slight tinge of softness, the digital photography here is crisp and bolstered by deep, substantial blacks. The presence of fine detail remains consistently robust throughout as well. Contagion takes a rather stylized approach to its palette. At times it prefers to drain away most every trace of color, and at others, the screen is drenched in one hue or another: the sickly, bile-like tint to the opening sequence, a cold, steely blue, or a sharp gold, for instance. Much like Soderbergh's Traffic, those tints not only evoke a certain tone and atmosphere but also serve as a visual guide to the film's many different backdrops the world over. Contagion boasts a clean, glossy texture, far removed from the grittier and more coarse photography I'd generally expect from a movie like this. Contagion's release on Blu-ray isn't hindered by any excessive filtering or artificial sharpening, and despite its fairly modest bitrate, I was unable to spot any missteps in its AVC encode. I'm really not left with anything to complain about or criticize whatsoever.

Contagion is provided on a single-layer Blu-ray disc and is presented without any matting. The second disc in the set is an anamorphic widescreen DVD.


Audio
This is a film with no interest in the usual trappings of a thriller, shrugging off any manic car chases, colossal explosions, or bullets whizzing from one speaker to the next. Instead, Contagion uses its 24-bit,
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six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack to immerse the viewer in this world. The sound design is intensely atmospheric, seizing full advantage of every channel at its disposal. It also acknowledges the impact that silence can have, with just enough subtle flourishes to make moments of complete desolation that much more haunting. The brilliant electronic score is reinforced by a snarling low-end that ensures that the subwoofer is never dormant for all that long. Each individual element in the mix is rendered with impressive distinctness and clarity, and every last line of the film's dialogue is readily discerned. An outstanding effort.

A lossy stereo surround track has also been included, alongside Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs in French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Subtitles are featured in English (SDH), French, Spanish, and Portuguese.


Extras
Disappointingly little.
  • The Reality of Contagion (11 min.; HD): The first of the disc's featurettes explores the inevitability of such a virulent outbreak, the logistics of trying to immunize entire cities or countries, establishing policy in times of such great panic, and how fear is as great a threat as the virus itself. The film's eye for authenticity and accuracy is also touched upon, and it's a focal point in Contagion's other featured extra as well.

  • The Contagion Detectives (5 min.; HD): The cast of Contagion speaks about their interactions with a slew of real-life scientists and medical detectives.

  • Contagion: How a Virus Changes the World (2 min.; HD): Finally, a quippy PSA explains how a pandemic is spread and the little things each of us can do to help prevent it. It's on YouTube -- officially, even! -- if you want to give the video a quick peek.

An anamorphic widescreen DVD and a code for an UltraViolet digital copy have also been included.


The Final Word
Contagion isn't the more overt thriller that the film's trailer made it out to be, instead drawing much of its power from its disinterest in the conventional. This autopsy of a global pandemic is haunting and unnerving because it feels so real, bolstered further by its surprisingly brisk pace, a terrific ensemble cast, and the masterful visual storytelling of Steven Soderbergh. Highly Recommended.


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