You never know what you’re going to get with Steven Soderbergh. He’s a chameleon, someone just as happy to do a project that cost ten dollars as a hundred million. And he likes to work. Even though he’s mentioned retirement, Contagion came out in September theatrically, and four months later his Haywire is coming out. Contagion stars Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard and Jennifer Ehle in what amounts to a disaster film about a new virus that starts a pandemic. It may also be the best disaster film ever made. Our review of Contagion on Blu-ray follows after the jump.
Starting with Patient Zero, the film introduces us to Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) as she’s flying home from Hong Kong and just after she’s had sex with an ex-lover. She thinks she’s just got jet lag, but when she gets home to her husband Mitch (Damon), she gets much worse and quickly dies. Mitch is in such a shock that he can’t accept it, and then comes home to find that his son has also passed away.
The CDC is notified and quickly work with the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to deal with the situation. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) is the face of the department and he sends Dr. Erin Mears (Winslet) to Minneapolis to find out who had contact with Beth before she died there. But as it originated in Hong Kong, it’s already spread globally, which Alan Krumwiede (Law) noted on his blog, and has been tracking. But though he proves to be one of the first to notice it, he also spreads the word that forsythia is the cure, which makes him a millionaire at the possible expense of people’s lives.
In Hong Kong, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Cotillard) is trying to find the source when she’s kidnapped by a village to get them the cure as soon as possible. Stateside, Dr. Ally Hextall (Ehle) is working on finding the cure. She gives the virus to Professor Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould), who is the first to identify what it is, though Hextall is one of the main researchers on finding the cure. As the hunt to find a solution continues, the world collapses as rioting breaks out with people looking for food and medicine. Mitch has a daughter, and he makes it his goal to protect her from everything, including the boy who’s got a crush on her.
If Contagion has a weakness, it’s that occasionally it’s too neat, and there’s a side story involving Cheever and one of the janitors (John Hawkes) that feels out of place in the film. But otherwise, it’s a stellar achievement, and Soderbergh is at the top of his game. You can see it from the start, when the film shows how much we touch that could be covered in diseases. It’s a montage of touching that effectively sets you up for the film you’re about to watch – set to a great score by Cliff Martinez.
The films works because it’s an ensemble, and so it deftly intercuts between states and nations while the epidemic spreads, and everyone gets their moments to shine. But it’s Damon as the wounded father who centers the film, the person who shoulders the weight of knowing that he’s immune to the virus while not knowing if his daughter is safe as he watches the world collapse in front of him. But special recognition must go to Jennifer Ehle, who knocks it out of the park as the scientist who tries to cure the disease. She’s had smaller roles here and there before, but she’s commanding and sexy in the role. And what makes her sexy is her competence.
What the film gets right and what makes it a classic is how it understands the modern world. The disease goes global accidentally, but that movement from one location to everywhere explains our modern culture, just as Law’s Krumwiede can find an incident in Hong Kong and get millions of people around the world to read his blog. This is never better essayed than when the government plans a lockdown and Cheever tells one person about it (even though he was sworn to secrecy) which then leads to that information spreading virally.
But though there are grace notes here and there, most of which work (the Hawkes stuff is really the only thing that doesn’t) the script is a bullet which keeps moving the film forward so every scene advances the greater narrative, which is a world dealing with a new killer virus. Soderbergh has rarely been on point this hard, and he nails the film. It’s a master class, and one of the best films of 2011.
Warner Brother’s Blu-ray is presented in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master audio. The Blu-ray also comes with a DVD and Digital copy. The film was shot digitally, so this presentation is likely the best it can look – and it looks good. Alas supplements are light on this one. There are two featurettes: “False Comfort Zone: The Reality of Contagion” (11 min.) briefly deals with the science of the film, while “The Contagion Detectives” (5 min.) gets the actors to talk about the science. The disc wraps up with the PSA “Contagion: How a Virus Changes the World” (2 min.). Perhaps Soderbergh was too busy for the supplements on this one. Too bad.