Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” available now on Blu-ray and DVD, captures the credible fear that an airborne virus could wipe out thousands, if not millions, of people.
So, where are the thrills, the chases and the heart-stopping revelations that usually accompany this doomsday scenario? And why can’t Soderbergh, an Oscar winner himself for the 2000 film “Traffic,” find the screen time to showcase all the Oscar nominees – and winners – in his cast?
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The sound of a person coughing opens the film, and one of the first objects seen is a small bowl of bar nuts. Already, we’re dreading the kind of viral calamity about to strike courtesy of these small, deft strokes.
A married woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) arrives home from a business trip with a nasty cold, and before long she’s sprawled out on her kitchen floor, unconscious. Her husband (Matt Damon) rushes her to the hospital, but she never regains consciousness.
Did Soderbergh just kill off Chris Martin's better half? (no spoiler here – we learn this in the film’s trailer).
From there, we get glimpses of how the virus which struck her down spreads. We see foreign cities with their population numbers emblazoned on the screen to highlight the stakes. We meet dedicated researchers (Kate Winslet, Elliott Gould), a compassionate Centers for Disease Control rep (Laurence Fishburne) and an aggressive blogger (Jude Law) who sees conspiracies all around him.
Every element a ripped from the headlines yarn demands is lined up for our approval, and for a while “Contagion” infects us to the core. But it’s s a thriller with few thrills, an impeccably acted disaster movie without the heart to go for broke. The movie hints at broad conspiracies, and then backs away from such accusations. For every villain there’s a hero following closely behind. It doesn’t condemn any quadrant of society but merely hints at the flaws in each. It’s dispassionate when it should be showing the fire in its storytelling belly.
It’s as if radio’s Fairness Doctrine were alive, well and applicable to feature films.
Winslet makes the most of her character’s muted story arc, while Fishburne summons every ounce of gravitas to play a man caught between personal and professional duties. Law is the live wire here, a muckraker out to spread the news that Big Pharma is up to its old tricks.
Marion Cotillard appears briefly in a subplot that adds nothing but confusion to the narrative.
It’s fascinating to see Soderbergh’s vision of societal chaos, and casting big stars to enliven small roles does make the subsequent epiphanies more profound. The filmmakers reveal just scientific jargon to keep the story’s structure sound, although a few whoppers rattle that foundation.
A-list directors rarely tackle material as pulpy as “Contagion.” And, after seeing Soderbergh’s approach to an epidemic epic, maybe we know why. Sometimes, a disaster movie should skip the nuance and just tell a darn good story.
The Blu-ray extras will do nothing to make you sleep any easier after considering the real-life implications of the film."The 'Contagion' Detectives" talks to some of the experts who helped make the film as realistic as possible.
"They're trained not to panic," notes Cotillard of the men and women trying to keep our population safe behind the scenes.
"The Reality of 'Contagion'" is a standard, albeit dense look at the film's creation.
"It's a matter of when, not if," says Law regarding what the contagion experts told the crew about the possibility of a global pandemic like the one shown in the film.
Perahps the most innovative extra is “Contagion: How a Virus Changes the World,” an animated look at how something spreads so rapidly through our modern society. It’s goofy and fast paced, a darkly comic riff on a worst-case scenario that even mentions Bieber Fever to lighten the mood. The segment wraps with some proactive steps we can take to prevent a real-life "Contagion," starting with the simple act of washig our hands regularly.