Contagion (2011) [Blu-ray review]

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2012-01-02 09:36

Contagion (2011)
Studio: Warner Home Video
Release date: January 3rd, 2012

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

The movie:

Contagion was not only one of my favorite horror movies of 2011, but one of my favorite movies, period. If I were to make a top ten list, it likely would have made a serious run at making it. From a concept standpoint, it represents one of those rare, exciting moments where one of the world’s best directors (in this case, Steven Soderbergh) is at the helm with an ensemble cast full of the world’s finest actors at his disposal. Even a guy like John Hawkes (who might be winning an Oscar next month) finds himself in a bit role that features in all of two or three scenes, as he gives way to the likes of Matt Damon (who probably should win an Oscar next month for his turn in this movie), Kate Winslet, Lawrence Fishburne, and more. Even Gwyneth Paltrow lent her talents (and her head) in a turn that was short, yet memorable.

In my theatrical review of the film, I said the huge cast and the epic scope (the film tracks the worldwide outbreak of a killer virus) reminded me of one of those 70s disaster movie blockbusters. That’s really more of a superficial comparison, though, as Contagion is free from the melodrama and grand spectacle those movies entailed because it treats its very scary material with a grim-faced seriousness. At times, it feels like a documentary of an apocalyptic virus that hasn’t happened yet, but you can imagine that this is exactly what it’ll look like if one of these ever arrives. I’ve seen people questioning if Contagion should be considered a horror movie, but I’d just dare anyone to watch this movie with an extreme germaphobe, who would no doubt have one arm into a hazmat suit about 30 minutes into it.

But for all of its apocalypse movie trappings--the eerie, empty streets, Cliff Martinez’s brooding, electric score, and the suffocating paranoia--Contagion finds a remarkably human center in many of its characters. This is a movie about heroism, much like those aforementioned disaster movies; however, instead of Paul Newman or Steve McQueen saving people from burning buildings in huge, sweeping moments, we see quieter, smaller acts from both Damon and Fishburne’s characters. The latter gives one of my favorite performances of any film in 2011 as the head of the CDC, while the former’s humbling, dignified widower reveals the intimate, everyman stakes in all of this. Sprawling and terrifying though it may be, Contagion is really a movie about how we move on from something like this, both as a society and as an individual. Don’t mistake it for cloying, life-affirming stuff at any point, though, as it remains bone-chilling to its final scene, a moment that reveals how randomly and innocuously these sort of things can begin--and perhaps even repeat themselves.

The disc:

Warner Home Video will be releasing Contagion in a Blu-ray/DVD/Ultraviolet package on January 3rd, and you’ll obviously want to go with the high-def offering if possible. Thinking back on seeing Contagion in theaters, I recalled it having a muted look, which is not to say it was at all dull--it just looks natural, for lack of a better term, perhaps in keeping with Soderbergh’s pseudo-documentary approach. Upon revisiting it, the Blu-ray transfer retains this quality, but this transfer also struck me as being quite vivid and detailed, as it captures the various locales wonderfully. The film jumps from the steely cold, wintry American mid-west to some more vibrant, exotic Asian locations, and the transfer handles all of these jumps rather well. It’s also free from any artifacts and generally holds a healthy bitrate.

The soundtrack is likewise impressive; this is a dialogue-heavy film, and the DTS-MA 5.1 track renders it all intelligible. Martinez’s excellent score (which might only have been topped all year by Martinez himself in Drive) is also well-represented in the mix. As you might have gathered, there aren’t a whole lot of loud, bombastic moments in Contagion, but when such scenes do arise, the soundscape opens up and fills the room and is accompanied by strong, deep low-frequencies.

This release is a bit light on extra material, as the three features provided don’t even total twenty minutes; the beefiest one here is “The Reality of Contagion,” an 11 minute long piece that begins with the usual platitudes from the cast and crew, who discuss how they strove to make the film as realistic as possible. They’re then joined by the actual scientists and authors that were consulted and present on set during production; they reveal a little bit of the science and real-world stuff behind the script and insist that it all hews rather closely to what would actually happen in the event of a worldwide pandemic. If the movie itself didn’t scare you enough, this feature will complete the job, as they also insist that Contagion isn’t a matter of “if,” but, rather, “when.”

“The Detectives of Contagion” comes in at about five minutes and mostly just feels like an extension of the previous feature. This one focuses mostly on the scientific community portrayed in the film, and the various actors discuss how they trained and prepared for their roles. They’re once again joined by those same scientists, who profess their gratitude for the film’s ability to accurately portray the immense pressure their jobs entailed. One of my favorite things about Contagion is how it never capitulates to being a governmental paranoiac’s wet dream, and this feature makes it clear that it was always intended for the government agencies to be heroic.

The final bit, “How a Virus Changes the World,” is essentially a quirky little two minute PSA that feels like it would play well in a freshman biology class. It’s silly enough and even has a few pop culture references thrown in, and it ends with a checklist of what to do to avoid an epidemic like the one presented in Contagion.

All in all, I’m pretty pleased with the disc, though I’d argue that such a great film probably deserves more in the way of extras. Regardless, this remains one of my favorites from 2011, and it’s a film that reminds me that Soderbergh shouldn’t even breathe the word “retirement” like he has during the last couple of years. For the time being, he’s still with us (his latest, Haywire, actually opens next week), and, if Contagion is any indication, he should stick around for a long, long time. Buy it!
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