Blu-ray Review: Contagion

Contagion Blu-raySTUDIO: Warner | DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh | CAST: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston, Marion Cottilard, Jude Law
BLU-RAY & DVD RELEASE DATE: 1/3/2012 | PRICE: DVD $28.99, Blu-ray/DVD Combo $35.99
BONUSES: featurettes
SPECS: PG-13 | 106 min. | Drama thriller | 1.78:1 widescreen | DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1/Dolby Digital 5.1 | English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean and Mandarin subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

The well-crafted thriller movie Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s (Traffic) sixth feature film in as many years (seventh  if you count the 2008’ two-parter Che twice), finds the masterful, genre-embracing (and occasionally busting) filmmaker working at the top of his craft.

Soderbergh, whose recent resume also includes The Informant!, Ocean’s 13 and The Girlfriend Experience, fails insofar as he only fails to disappoint. Contagion, a gripping, contemporary film written by Scott Z. Burns (who penned the The Informant!), is no exception.


Kate Winslet tracks a virus in Contagion.

Featuring the sprawling cast of a 1970s disaster movie minus that cycle’s camp silliness, Contagion posits in both fascinating and clinical detail the medical, political and panicked-mob responses of an unknown deadly virus making its way with terrifying rapidity across the globe.  How deadly is this virus, you ask?  So deadly that even Gwyneth Paltrow (Country Strong) looks ugly when she dies from it in the movie’s opening minutes.

Spread via breath, physical contact or even grazing something an infected person has touched (and for all we know, via Skype), this plucky pathogen shares its screen time with a swath of talented actors, including Marion Cotillard (Midnight in Paris), Laurence Fishburne (Boyz N the Hood), Kate Winslet (Heavenly Creatures), Jennifer Ehle (The King’s Speech), Bryan Cranston (Drive) and Elliot Gould (M*A*SH).

Most of the characters in the story are either heroic CDC scientists or hapless victims, although Jude Law (Repo Men) does a memorable turn as the film’s sole villain, a blogger (those bastards!) seeking to make a profit off mass hysteria. Matt Damon (True Grit) is the emotional core of the film, which has precious little time for the emotional, and he gives a powerful, heartbreaking performance that proves the old adage about small roles and small actors.

With its carefully planned compositions, crisply efficient editing that criss-crosses the world as the virus reaches pandemic proportions, and subtly washed out palette of colors (which are all the more “sickly” in their Blu-ray incarnation), Contagion could have lost its power with its almost-clinical mis-en-scene and occasional hard-science chatter. But it doesn’t, and that’s due to Soderbergh’s fine sense of pace. This isn’t a thriller with a dozen “whammies”  sprinkled liberally over the movie’s running time, but rather a modulated piece of filmmaking that respects the demands of genre audiences just as it honors the reality of the story.

Rather disappointing, however, are the Blu-ray’s bonus materials, which consist of only three featurettes. Leading them off is “The Reality of Contagion,” an 11-minute piece that finds the film’s producers, screenwriter and stars discussing the possibility of a large-scale virus getting the best of the planet. Oh, there are also a bunch of scientists and doctors adding their two cents to the discussion and insisting that the film does a fine job of depicting the world’s probable reaction and outcome of such an event.

The trained professionals, of course, are more familiar with the facts than the stars, who also pop up alongside them in a second, shorter featurette, “The Contagion Detective,” which covers many of the same ideas. Both featurettes are adequate when it comes to Contagion‘s subject matter, but neither of them explore the actual making of the film.

Even more frustrating is that Soderbergh is nowhere to be found in either featurette (though he can be seen in a shot or two). Am I crazy to want to hear what the filmmaker, a fine one, has to say about his latest film, his most serious effort since Che?

The third featurette is “Contagion: How a Virus Changes the World,” a two-minute PSA about viruses and how they spread. It’s a tongue-in-cheekish albeit informative quickie that I would definitely sacrifice in lieu of any information — anything — on the nuts and bolts of Contagion‘s production.


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About Gwen

Gwen Cooper is a movie and TV lover and the author of Homer's Odyssey (no, not the one you're thinking of).