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Blu-ray Review: Contagion (2011)

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The silver screen regularly treats us to views of the apocalypse.  We constantly see aliens, robots, earthquakes, and nuclear weapons destroy, enslave, and/or annihilate the Earth and its inhabitants.  The goal of these films is, of course, enjoyment, to show us something we’ve never seen before and to thrill us to no end.   Often, they succeed, and that’s one of the reasons we see so many entries into the genre.

For the newly released on Blu-ray Contagion, Steven Soderbergh takes that basic apocalypse formula and turns it into something a good deal more frightening.  There are no aliens from outer space out to destroy the world in the film, there is only an infectious disease, a super-bug, and it does the job far better than aliens on the big screen have in many a year.

What is more impressive about the movie than the broad swaths of humanity which we’re told have been dispatched by the disease, is the amount of fright the film gives within individual moments.  Contagion boasts a large cadre of stars including Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, and Gwyneth Paltrow, and while they offer up good—and intense—performances, their characters are awfully shallow.  This isn’t a movie which is concerned greatly with character arc as much as it is concerned with presenting a completely and wholly believable depiction of how a disease could go about killing a great number of us.  As Jude Law says about the scenario in general in one of the bonus features, according to the film, it isn’t a question of if this sort of thing (deadly virus wiping out millions) will happen, but when.

The characters then are there to provide us with some touchstones so that we can feel the destructive force of the virus more personally and see how humanity can go about saving (some) of itself.  Matt Damon is the distraught husband/father who looses two of the people he loves and has to protect the third.  Kate Winslet is the on-site investigator who must fight tooth and nail to find out what is happening with the virus and to establish quarantine protocols.  Laurence Fishburne is the expert at the CDC who must balance what he knows about the virus and what he can say.  Jude Law is the reporter out to make a name for himself despite the seriousness of the disease.  They are all relatively one-note characters, but as the performances are earnest and excellent, they succeed at the necessary task of sucking the viewer in and the virus takes it from there.

From start to finish, Contagion is intense.  The film runs 106 minutes, but Soderbergh’s direction of Scott Z. Burns’ script is gripping enough that well before the credits roll, you’ll start wondering about that little tickle in the back of your throat. 

While zombies may eventually arrive to eat our brains, seeing them do so on film rarely makes one board their windows at night.  Contagion feels far more real and may definitely have you contemplating just how big a stockpile of food and water you have in your house.

As horrific as the events on-screen may be, their depiction on Blu-ray is astoundingly beautiful.  There are several night scenes in the film, and in every one the level of detail is exceptionally high (as it is during the daytime scenes as well).  The color palette changes as we move from place to place (something Soderbergh also did exceptionally well in Traffic), and each is presented perfectly here and help establish the location and provide a different feel.  The colors are all relatively muted throughout, but that is certainly a choice not a fault of the manufacturing.   One won’t find anything to complain about with black levels, detail, or really anything else.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is nearly as good as the visuals.  It does an excellent job of helping move us from place to place, using the rear speakers to provide lots of atmosphere.  It is well-mixed, perfectly clear, and complements the visuals and story.  There are no explosions here as aliens destroy the White House, but that doesn’t stop it from being a fully realized track.

Where this release is a letdown is with the bonus features.  It is a two-disc set with the second disc containing a DVD copy of the film.  There is also an UltraViolet digital copy (not an iTunes one), and three brief featurettes.  The first two of these featurettes are a series of EPK-esque clips of the stars and crew discussing the reality behind the film and how it came together.  Neither is very deep and neither is very interesting.  The third bonus feature is a more humorous bit on the serious matter of how a pandemic spreads.  It may be funny(ish), but as with the other two bonus features it fails to truly enlighten.

Ignoring the paltry bonus features present, Contagion is a great Blu-ray.  The film and its presentation are both top-notch.  Hypochondriacs may do better to stay away from the movie as even the best of us may feel some illness coming on before the end of the film, but those who watch will be both impressed and more than a little scared.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.