I toyed, for a brief time in high school, with the idea of going into the field of virology. I think it was Richard Prestonís non-fiction horror story The Hot Zone that turned me on to the fascinating world of epidemiology. Circumstances conspired that the field was never really an option for me (a crippling fear of infectious diseases didnít help, either) but I never lost my fascination with the subject. For years Iíve wanted to see a big budget, global pandemic movie that treated the subject matter for its inherent interest and didnít use it as a springboard for overused disaster movie tropes. Wolfgang Petersenís Outbreak had a few moments where it came close, although it was content with being an action oriented popcorn-muncherÖwhich is fine. Still, it was hard not to feel like audiences were still missing out. Academy award winning director Steven Soderbergh has finally corrected this error. Contagion is simply the best movie on its subject ever made, and itís just a great piece of commercial entertainment. We can lament the watered down vanilla films studios crank out on a constant basis but every now and then they get it absolutely, 100% right.
It starts in a Hong Kong casino with what seems like a simple travelerís cold. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), fresh from an extramarital dalliance before her flight home to Minneapolis, is killing time at the bar in the lobby of the hotel sheís been staying in. She coughs, hands her credit card to the bartender and from there it begins. From that ground zero we follow a number of people and witnesses how, in the span of 48 hours, close to 60 million people have potentially been exposed to the virus. Whatís most frightening is that those people were exposed without even knowing it. Whether they live or die, become sick or stay healthy stems entirely not from anything they could have done to prevent it but simply in a twist of fate; of being near the wrong person at the right time.
On her return home, Bethís condition continually deteriorates and soon her son falls ill, as well. When Beth has a seizure on her kitchen floor her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) rushes her to the hospital. She dies while Mitch is in the waiting room and he returns home to find that his stepson had a similar seizure and is not breathing. Mitch, despite being exposed to the virus seems unaffected. He is placed in quarantine for observation and after a battery of tests doctors realize that Mitch has a natural immunity to the virus.
At the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) manages the American response to the pending epidemic, creating policy, addressing the public and keeping tabs on the results of the ongoing lab research. He sends Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) into the field to be the CDCís presence on the frontlines, triaging and isolating infectious patients in hopes of slowing down or stopping the spread of the disease. It isnít long before Erin herself falls ill and is consigned to the quarantine zone she helped establish.
Across the ocean Cheeverís counterpart, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) with World Health Organization, travels to Asia to try and track down the index patient (the first human infected by the disease) and help manage the government response in what is one of the most densely populated areas of the world: Hong Kong. As the pandemic spreads the concern in the developing world is that, once a vaccine is developed, the first world nations will hoard the dosages to themselves while the poorest people on the planet suffer. Leonora is kidnapped by her Chinese liaison, Sun Feng (Chin Han), and skirted away to the small countryside village where his family lives with the hopes that she can be used as ransom to trade for enough vaccinations to immunize the whole village.
Not only do the authorities have to combat the spread of the disease and the breakdown of social order, they also have to combat the fear stirred by the spread of misinformation by unscrupulous bloggers like Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). Alan fancies himself a skeptic who sees through the cover up and is bringing the real truth to light. Or maybe heís just convinced himself that his motives are pure, considering heís making money off the sale of a homeopathic remedy (i.e. salt water masquerading as medicine) that heís pimping as a cure-all.
From minute one Contagion does a good job of convincing us that it knows what itís talking about. Itís one of the few movies that actually takes its topic seriously and sees the compelling entertainment value in actually being about its subject. Unlike the similarly themed Outbreak, there are no attempts to sex up the film with an action climax. Itís the typically analytical, dispassionate Soderbergh approach and it works as well for pandemics as it did for the war on drugs.
When I first saw Contagion in the theatre, I was accompanied by a couple of lovely ladies who work in the field of biology. They donít work specially in a field relevant to Contagion, but they have a strong grounding in genetics nonetheless. While they scoffed a few times in the beginning of the film they soon settled in with rapt attention and, by the filmís conclusion, agreed that Contagion was reasonably accurate in its portrayal of science and that any liberties taken were forgivable in making the film more cinematic and accessible to a lay audience. Who am I to argue with a couple of professional biologists?
Interesting, too, is the parallel between the spread of the disease and the spread of the misinformation about it. The film is as much a criticism of the blogosphere and the rise of globalization as it is about the spread of pathogens. It sees both the spread of a new pandemic and the spread of misinformation as largely unavoidable. The genie is out of the lamp and, no matter how much some may wish it, we can never go back to the isolationism of the past. The best we can do is to have in place protocols that deal with outbreaks as they arise and prevent them from become true, worldwide pandemics. The problem is the economic disparity between nations means that the third world and developing nations are largely going to fall under the axe while the wealthy, predominantly western nations will be relatively sheltered. Similarly, electronic media is able to disseminate misinformation labeled as fact faster than hard evidence can be gathered that trying to stem that tide is akin to the proverbial boy with his finger plugging a hole in a leaking dyke. The best we can do in that instance is teach people critical thinking skills so theyíre less likely to fall for snake oil salesmen and have harsh penalties for those who recklessly, or maliciously, spread untruths. In a very real sense, the spread of factoids and half-truths masquerading as hard evidence is the more insidious threat.
Best of all is Soderberghís portrayal of scientists. We live in a time when, despite how many ways the sciences have improved our lives, scientists are still widely distrusted. In Contagion we get the most realistic portrayal of scientists ever. Theyíre not super-human heroes, nor cabalistic conspirators scheming to keep the world in the dark while they horde their knowledge. Theyíre not even altruistic crusaders, fighting against a system that wants to see them silenced. They are skilled technical professionals who see the value in their work, take pride in it and understand the larger implications of having a good day at the office and having a bad one. Some are reckless, others are cautious. Theyíre all allowed, however, to be human. They work in a system that they understand is imperfect but is still the best mechanism we have to combat the spread of infectious diseases.
As expected, the technical credits are impeccable. The cinematography, by Soderbergh himself, is first rate as is the driving, predominantly electric score by Cliff Martinez. This is proof positive that great, daring and slick movies can be made in the studio system and be commercial successes as well. We need more films like Contagion, and by that I donít mean more films about pandemics. What we need are talented directors willing to take on material with commercial appeal thatís not immediately apparent, smart casts that understand the material, and studios willing to give them money to make the film the way they want. Bravo Warner, Soderbergh and the all-star cast. Contagion is not just one of the best films of last year; itís one of the best films of the past decade.
Stunning. Soderberghís crisp, high contrast cinematography is beautifully reproduced on this Blu-ray. One of Soderberghís hallmarks is his use of different color palettes to visually indicate shifts in location. Whether itís the wan, bluish light of Matt Damonís Minnesotan scenes, or the oversaturated yellows of the Chinese scenes, Contagion has multiple opportunities to shine. Detail is crisp, no matter the color scheme, and compression flaws nonexistent. Some night scenes look a bit blurry, but thatís entirely consistent with how the film was presented in theaters. This transfer will please fans of the film or those who dig Soderberghís visual aesthetic.
For such a big scale movie, the audio in Contagion is surprisingly quiet. Thatís not a criticism of the audio track so much as a description of the film itself. Instead portraying an outbreak with all manner of bombast, the large scale scenes are primarily set to Cliff Martinezís fantastic score while the dialogue scenes are played much quieter. This isnít a punchy soundtrack continually buzzing with surround effects, and itís specifically designed to complement the mood of the film itself. Thatís not to say that the film doesnít bust out the surrounds when appropriate: the Hong Kong casino scenes buzz with presence and atmosphere while the wintry Minnesota scenes have all the ambiance youíd expect of a crisp winterís day: parkas crinkling, boots crunching dry snow. Itís the lack of sound in the latter half of the movie that makes its scenes of empty streets, deserted airports and mass graves particularly effective. Itís an unusual choice for a mainstream Hollywood film but an extremely effective one.
I wasnít expecting a release that lavished the film with supplements the way Criterion did with Traffic but Soderbergh is such a literate and articulate filmmaker and I was hoping for, at the very least, a commentary. No such luck. The supplements are pretty scant but the little were given are pretty high quality.
The only real fault of The Reality of Contagion (11:29) is that it simply isnít long enough. A well assembled mix of behind the scenes footage, movie clips and interviews with participants, the information included is well chosen and thereís a good balance of the actors perspectives and the insight of technical advisors from behind the scenes. This featurette is as tightly assembled and compelling as any of Soderberghís best films.
Shifting the perspective from the larger ramifications of a worldwide outbreak to the people who would fight to contain one is The Contagion Detectives (4:29). Itís a well-intentioned tip of the hat to virologists and epidemiologists but itís far fluffier than Reality. It would have been nice to have the actual PhDs comment on the veracity of specific moments in the movie and point out some of the flaws, as well. Still, as far as studio produced featurettes go, this one is still a notch above most.
Contagion: How a Virus Changes the World (2:01) is a cute little PSA from the Take Part organization. The tone is a tad alarmist but forewarned is forearmed, as they say. And really, is it such a bad idea to have stockpiles of bottled water and toilet paper, just in case?
Thereís just so much to say on the subject, and Soderbergh is such a fascinating and insightful, figure that a full on special edition of Contagion would be a treasure trove. As it is, fans will have to content themselves for the time being with this fairly bare bones release. This is one film that I would gladly look forward to double dipping on.
Thereís not much left to say at this point. Contagion is a fantastic film that I would recommend you pick up, regardless of any other factors. It just so happens that Warner, while not lavishing Contagion with special features, got it right where it counts. Stellar audio visual presentation that does a great film justice is all the reason I need to give Contagion my highest possible recommendation. Hopefully my accolades for this thinking manís horror film spread.
Great review! I also enjoyed it quite a lot...
I'm was really looking forward to seeing this, in spite of the negative posts on this site. Thanks!
I liked the movie too. I don't understand the negative posts here, but maybe they were expecting akin to '28 Days Later' or something...
I ignored the theatrical release. After reading this review I watched it and loved the movie. Thanks for the great review.
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