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CONTAGION
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, Sanaa Lathan
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 106 Minutes
Release Date: January 3, 2012

Is there anyway someone can weaponize the bird flu? Is that what were looking at?”

Someone doesn't have to weaponize the bird flu. The birds are doing that.”

Film ***1/2

The killer virus has been the subject of numerous thrillers of the past. The first cases, no pun intended, that leap to mind are Outbreak and The Crazies (be it George Romero's original or the recent remake). And viruses in general have served as the basis for breathing new life into various sub-genres, as best illustrated in Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later...

Though each of the aforementioned films have delivered their own chilling effect, no other film has dealt with a killer epidemic in a more realistic manner than Contagion, therefore making it one of the more truly scary films in recent memory. There isn't a second that goes by in this film where I wasn't thinking to myself, “this is exactly how things would go down if this happened.”

Leave it to a bold filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh to deliver such a masterfully potent film. The low-key approach he establishes here in depicting both the spread of a deadly disease and damaging effect it has on the surviving members of the planet plays a pivotal role in the film's sharp, potent effect. Any follower of Soderbergh's work knows that cinematography and editing are used in an unconventional, but always awe-inspiring, fashion...so when those precise skills are applied to what is essentially an authentic scare fest, count on the already potent effect to double.

The film opens with Beth (a convincingly sick-looking Gwyneth Paltrow) chatting on a cell phone and gnawing away on bar nuts at an airport. When she arrives at home, husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is slightly concerned about her current condition, though she simply tells him that she's just a bit under the weather. The next morning during breakfast, she collapses to the floor and begins frothing at the mouth...and dies shortly after arriving at the hospital.

To make matters worse, the very same virus that served as her cause of death is already spreading around the globe, as seen in an eerily effective montage. Before we see Ms. Paltrow bite the dust, citizens of Tokyo, Hong Kong and London have died under the very same circumstances, as well as several US cities such as Chicago and Boston. In between the progression of the disease, we are given images such as multiple hands touching a pole inside a city bus...thus indicating how quickly this virus could be spreading.

And by way of Soderbergh's unique knack for crafting a narrative through multiple locations, we see the effect this outbreak has on numerous parts of the globe and a number of critical characters. Among them are Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), a key administrator of the CDC (Center for Disease Control) in Atlanta whose basically has to deal with the endless uneasy balance between science and political bureaucrats. Also in the mix is Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet), an agent for the Epidemic Intelligence Service tasked with tracing the path of the virus, and Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard), an investigator for the World Health Organization in Geneva.

On the science end, doctors Sussman (Elliott Gould) and Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) are working effortlessly to come up with a perfect form of vaccine, which has proven rather difficult since the virus at hand seems to reject cure. And there is a conspiracy theory nut in the form of Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), an online blogger whose primary theory is that drug companies have ties to the government, and both will use the current outbreak to their advantage. When Alan hounds Dr. Sussman for information, Sussman responds with one of the single best movie quotes of all time, “blogging is not journalism, it's graffiti with punctuation.”

The most human of the story lines, and for me the most important, is the one involving Matt Damon's grieving Mitch. After suffering the loss of not only his wife but young stepson to the virus, he struggles to survive what appears to be the impending downfall of society. He and his teenage daughter are both immune to the virus, and he is easily hesitant about ventures outside the house.

As if he wasn't dealing with enough tragedy in his life, he is informed through Dr. Mears that his wife made a stop in Chicago on her way back from her overseas business trip, indicating a possible affair she was having. The virus, though, is not sexually transmitted. This leaves Mitch to ponder which is the worst news to grasp; that his wife was having an affair or the fact that she may have ignited the spread of the virus on US soil.

To sum it up, you can watch as many gore-fests and slasher movies that are put out this year and not one of them will come close to matching the frightening effect of Contagion. With his one of a kind filmmaking approach, Steven Soderbergh ignores taking the easy route of making a mainstream thriller that uses a killer virus as the basis for a brainless plot, but rather confronts the matter head on by showing the horrific reality that an epidemic would have on society. This is a bold piece of filmmaking that is also the scariest film of 2011!

Video ****

Soderbergh's most recent work has resulted in some remarkable looking Blu-ray releases, thanks in large part to his frequent use of the Red camera. This movie, however, has the distinction of being the first feature to be shot with an entirely new form of Red camera, the Red One MX. I'm pointing this out because, as revolutionary as the regular Red camera was in providing top level digital imagery, this new format is even more amazing to the eye, thus resulting in one fantastic looking Blu-ray release from Warner. Soderbergh's distinctive cinematography in each of the multiple settings is nothing short of incredible to gaze upon. Colors are well focused and terrifically natural, and the detail of the picture is simply breathtaking!

Audio ***1/2

A Soderbergh movie always carries a tremendous sense of sound even when the films don't contain any shootings, explosions or car chases to illustrate it. The DTS HD mix on this release takes full advantage of the surroundings of the multiple settings and using the unique sound design to immerse the viewer in what is truly an uncomfortable atmosphere. The moody electronic score by Cliff Martinez (who also scored Traffic and Solaris for Soderbergh) definitely delivers the intended effect as well in this superb lossless sound mix. Dialogue delivery is thoroughly superb, as expected.

Features *1/2

Unfortunately light on the features this time around, as all that's offered here are two brief featurettes: “The Reality of Contagion” and “The Contagion Detectives”, both of which feature interviews with both cast members and real life scientists and experts (Soderbergh, however, is strangely absent from these proceedings). There's also a small visual demonstration of the inner workings of a virus titled “Contagion: How a Virus Changes the World”.

This Combo Pack release also comes with a DVD edition of the movie, and an UltraViolet Digital Copy version is included on this disc as well.

Summary:

Contagion is yet another effective piece of filmmaking from Steven Soderbergh. Never limited to any film genre, Soderbergh has once again taken a genre entry and made it all his own through his bold filmmaking approach. He's also managed to make the scariest film in quite some time...and one that will definitely have you washing your hands a lot more than before!

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