Contagion Blu-ray ReviewJanuary 14, 2012
Steven Soderbergh has a knack for taking the real world and presenting it to us in as genuine and undiluted a fashion as possible. Even when he takes on the unlikeliest subjects (like 11 guys stealing eight figures from a Vegas casino and getting away with it), there's never a moment when the events unfolding on-screen seem implausible.
So why is it that Contagion, a film in which Soderbergh presents a procedurally-correct and true-to-life depiction of what the world would become in the face of a global super-virus - having assembled a cast of absolutely fantastic actors to do so - falls mind-numbingly flat?
The film follows the outbreak of a global plague with an infection rate capable of killing nearly 30 million people in a matter of weeks and the attempts of the CDC and the World Health Organization to contain and cure it. Before long, panic begins to grip the public.
Quarantines, riots, conspiracy theories and all other manner of social viruses spread faster than the biological ones, leaving the beleaguered CDC and the World Health Organization scrambling for a method of destroying the virus before the public destroys itself.
As one can deduce by the sheer size of the cast, the film splits off into numerous subplots and off-shoots of the primary story. The film's script (written by Scott Z. Burns) certainly has no issues with balancing the numerous stories and ensuring that each one is resolved as conclusively as possible.
Where the movie falls apart is in its inability to strike a consistent tone. I'm all for genre mash-ups (as a matter of fact, I'm a HUGE fan of genre mash-ups), but Soderbergh seems unsure from scene-to-scene what kind of film he wants to make.
In fact, it seems as though both Burns and Soderbergh have difficulty prioritizing any one story thread over the other, highly unusual considering that juggling multiple characters and angles within the same story frame is a task for which Soderbergh has demonstrated his ability more than once.
Just to provide a snapshot of everything this movie has going on, here's a brief synopsis of three main story threads:
Now then; consider the fact that those are three plot lines in a film that also counts among its cast members Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, Kate Winslet, Elliot Gould, Jennifer Ehle, and Sanaa Lathan in fairly large roles.
The film has no issue with balance. Rather, Contagion struggles with how that balance is spread out.
Paltrow appears in-and-out as the story of the virus's outbreak is slowly pieced together, which is understandable enough. What is unfathomable is the fact that Cotillard has approximately 25 minutes' worth of screen time (an eternity considering the size of the cast and complexity of the script) that are spread across about 65 minutes of the movies 1 hour, 45 minute run-time.
In other words, she's on screen for about ten minutes near the close of the first act, and we don't see her again until we're well into the third act. And yet the tone suggests we should still be deeply invested in her story.
Diagnosing Contagion's problems seems to be as difficult as the task faced by its protagonists.
As stated earlier, Soderbergh takes a very real approach to material that's been over-dramatized and given the Hollywood treatment more than once (remember when the monkey from Outbreak was LITERALLY a celebrity for about two months back in the 90s?).
But in spite of the benefit of treating a real issue with such a genuine approach, the movie lacks punch. It eventually devolves into a rather flat-footed ordeal.
Damon, unquestionably one of the best actors working today, is bafflingly-wooden in his portrayal of what should be a grief-stricken father.
Performance-wise, though, the movie belongs to Winslet. Even though her character doesn't play much of a role beyond the movie's first 45 minutes, her presence is felt when she is on screen in a big, bad way. Equally felt is her absence when she's off.
Her portrayal of an in-over-her-head CDC field agent is the lone performance that lends humanity to a story that should demand such a quality of all its characters. It was the one unquantifiable joy of watching this movie.
As for the rest, it's a mish-mash of hit-or-miss moments, much like Soderbergh's Hollywood resume. When the man has a budget, he's as unpredictable as the weather - and often just as volatile.
Contagion is by no means a bad movie. It's simply been mishandled.
Warner Bros. has brought Contagion to Blu-ray with a 1080p AVC-encoded transfer that serves the movie well, although it certainly won't leave any jaws on the floor.
True to Soderbergh's trademark, the color palate in the film is muted and overcast (it looks like one of the director's independent flicks), but there are occasional bursts of color in the form of the CDC's airtight hazard suits and a handful of other elements that provide variety without ever sticking out like a sore thumb.
Black levels are a little inconsistent, but that has more to do with Soderbergh's visual tastes than anything else, I would surmise.
As for the sound, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is serviceable but, on the whole, rather underwhelming. There aren't a lot of big moments in the movie, and the musical score is as reserved as the color selection, but the mix does handle ambient noise well.
All-in-all, it looks and sounds perfectly fine in high-def, but it's nothing to write home about.
Beyond the Feature
Only a handful of featurettes made it to the Blu-ray release, the highlight of which is the 11-minute mini-doc, 'The Reality of Contagion,' which examines just how underdeveloped our defenses against a global pandemic are. This feature isn't going to tell you anything about the production of the movie, but it does something that the film itself fails to do for the most part: It'll freakin' scare you!
No kidding. You'll be wiping off the phone receiver with alcohol for weeks, folks.
The disc also includes 'The Contagion Detectives' (5 minutes), detailing how experts lent their knowledge to the film's production, and 'How a Virus Changes the World' (2 minutes).
All three featurettes are presented in high-definition.
Also included is a DVD copy of the film as well as an Ultraviolet Streaming digital copy of the movie. The disc also has BD Live functionality.
At the end of the day, Contagion is certainly worth checking out, and it's an admirable effort on a number of lessons.
Unfortunately, it's hard for any marksman - even a sharpshooter like Soderbergh - to hit a hundred different targets with only one arrow.
- Jason Jarman
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