Warner Bros. // 2011 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // January 3rd, 2012
Nothing spreads like fear.
Some people get a disease and live. Some get sicker and die.
It starts with a cough, a headache, and general flu-like symptoms. You think you'll shake it off, but there's a good chance you won't; you might have a seizure, then go into a coma. Some survive; for others, it's a death sentence. A lucky few have a natural immunity.
It's passed with terrifying ease. Casual contact with an infected person can make you sick; even touching something that an infected person has touched can give it to you.
Cases multiply at an alarming rate. Within days, it's a pandemic, a world-wide crisis. The world as a "global community" turns out to have an ugly consequence. Cities are literally shutting down. Food supplies are dwindling, and social contact has become a dangerous game.
The Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization are working around the clock to identify it, isolate it, and create a treatment protocol and vaccine. But even with all the modern technology at their hands, time is not on their side, as the numbers of the afflicted continue to rise.
It's the MEV-1 virus.
Director Steven Soderbergh's Contagion is a spellbinding, grim, medical-thriller with a terrifying "What If?" premise: What if the world faced a new virus, one that was as easily transmitted as cold, but caused death within days for a high percentage of those who contracted it? Even in our technology-heavy world, how long would it take to isolate, control, and cure it? How could it be contained? What would be the social and economic consequences of a pandemic?
Soderbergh offers up a potent, believable doomsday scenario based on these very plausible questions.
Working with a script by Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!), Soderbergh follows the progress of the disease starting from "Day 2." Since the disease is passed so easily, and since the medical community has no reference for it, things escalate quickly. It's a matter of a very few weeks before the world is seemingly brought to its knees.
One of the most disturbing elements is how easily things we take for granted -- food from a grocery store, civil services, medical care -- are compromised. Looting and rioting become the order of the day, particularly when food supplies run low. Medical care is almost impossible to find. Researchers seem to be working around the clock, their own health and safety at risk.
No one grieves the dead -- not only is there no time, there are barely any means, as one scene shows us a funeral home refusing to handle the body of a victim for fear of contamination.
This is a film that truly gets under your skin. When a researcher mentions that the average person "touches their face two or three thousand times a day," see how long you can go without touching your own face.
At one point, we follow the "origin patient" -- the first confirmed case -- during an evening in a casino where, it is believed, the virus was lurking. We watch as the character does things that would not be out of the ordinary -- blowing on someone's dice for luck, sharing a drink, dropping a cell phone that's retrieved by a stranger. These simple actions become sinister, because these acts are the agents that spread the disease around the planet. It's a chilling scene -- all the more so, because it's never clear if the character is passing the disease through these insignificant interactions or contracting it this way. Throughout, Soderbergh zeroes in on routine movements -- picking up a glass, touching an elevator button -- that, as the film goes on, we realize present dangers we just don't consider.
Soderbergh directs with chilling precision. While the film is horrifying and contains a number of disturbing scenes, it's never sensationalized, exploring the horror of an eventuality most people can't even fathom. As he did in Traffic, the director gives each location -- and there are many -- a unique look and feel, thanks in part to the use of different lens filters.
While Contagion is filled with authentic "medical jargon," it's never inaccessible; Soderbergh and Burns are careful to offer up fairly simple explanations and keep the story moving.
The ending, which answers questions and ties things together, is unsettling and ironic.
Soderbergh dots his landscape with recognizable faces -- Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, and Bryan Cranston all turn up in supporting roles (the virus is really the only "star" here). Rather than coming off as an annoying "spot the star" gimmick, the wealth of familiar faces helps keep the story on track, as the director's dense and sometimes tricky tale jumps around from place to place and even to event. Thus, when we see Damon or Cotillard, we know exactly which thread Soderbergh is dealing with and can focus our attention on it without having to take time to get our bearings.
The showiest performance is by Jude Law as a duplicitous, muck-raking blogger. It's interesting that at a time when bloggers -- rightly and wrongly -- are being credited as being at the forefront of social change, Soderbergh and Burns choose to make a blogger the villain of the piece. Though it also helps drive home the point that Internet rumormongering too often adds to misinformation that fuels hysteria. (Mainstream media, on the other hand, gets little play, serving merely to offer bulletins that help us follow the path of the disease.) Law's oily charm and inelegant British accent serve his characterization well, as this is the best work the actor has done in a while.
Warner Bros. has put out a good looking Blu-ray. Contagion's high definition 1.78:1/1080p widescreen transfer is clean and sports some depth, though the film wasn't made to look great. It actually looks a bit gritty, with many scenes sporting a yellow-tinge that aids the queasy-feeling the story engenders. The main audio track is a crisp lossless 5.1 DTS-HD, and the disc includes a number of alternate languages.
Bonus features are sparse but interesting. "The Reality of Contagion" runs about 12 minutes and features some of the stars of the film, as well as the producer, the writer, and health professionals talking about...well, the real-life scenarios that could trigger events like those shown in the film. Clocking in at around five minutes, "The Contagion Detectives" focuses on the health-care professionals who worked with the production and is something of a salute to health-care professionals everywhere. "Contagion: How a Virus Changes the World" is a pretty lighthearted two-minute animated featurette that plays like a take-off on a short educational film and explains how viruses originate and spread -- washing your hands frequently is one of the best defenses against disease, we're reminded.
Here and there, Soderbergh pushes a bit too hard; the story of a WHO worker taken hostage by Chinese villagers to speed up the discovery and distribution of a vaccination is an exciting development, but one that ultimately rings false; reminiscent of AIDS activists in the '80s talking about jabbing then-President Reagan with a dirty needle to spur research. Actually, at times Contagion seems like a souped-up, speeded-up examination of that health crisis, with Randy Shilts' essential (if somewhat dated) And the Band Played On as a loose blueprint.
While Soderbergh is a great storyteller, the characterizations in his films leave something to be desired. I can't think of a Soderbergh film in which I've really "warmed up" to any of the characters, and Contagion is no exception. People are dying right and left, but rarely do feel an emotional response. Of course, that's part of the story, the overwhelming amount of casualties leaving us numb to the humanity of the loss.
Those who have strong fears of germs and illness might want to stay clear of Contagion. Even those who are hale, hearty, and fearless will find the film to be frightening, disturbing, and extremely compelling.
Now, go wash your hands.
Review content copyright © 2012 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Thai)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy
* Official Site
* Pandemic Site