**½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras C-
starring Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law
screenplay by Scott Z. Burns
directed by Steven Soderbergh
by Walter Chaw Less smug (if only be a few degrees) than Steven Soderbergh's other starfucker balls, Contagion surprises with its consistent serious-mindedness, even as it finally disappoints by contenting itself to be a cautionary tale rather than, in a year of world-busters, an end-of-times tale. Even Fail Safe and the inch of dust settled on it has Hank Fonda levelling NYC--all Contagion does is kill Gwyneth Paltrow ugly, which, in the grand scheme of things, is only what every sentient human being in the United States has contemplated already. (I confess I amused myself during the scene in which Paltrow's afflicted adulteress has her brain scooped out of her head by muttering "Goop, indeed." Sue me.) Still, it earns pith points for making Paltrow, typecast as a woman of privilege and longueurs, the Typhoid Mary of the new millennium, and more points still for being resolutely unafraid to characterize all of Asia as a giant petri dish ready to make a mass grave out of the rest of the world. Essentially, Contagion, as it goes about what it's about with absolute professionalism and class, earns its keep by being right, more or less, about everything it bothers to talk about.
Beth (Paltrow) is a globetrotting business lady married to Mitch (Matt Damon), a schlubby suburbanite tasked, after Beth's awesomely-satisfying death-by-convulsion, with raising their surviving child Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron), who, when all's said and done, just wants to go to prom. Alas, "Celebrity Outbreak" boots up, launching CDC argyle-hero Cheever (Laurence Fishburne, earning money to buy up every copy of his daughter's next artistic expression) and his ace field agent Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) into brainiac action, though not before Beth's Hong Kong contagion obliterates a meaningful percentage of the population. Elliott Gould has a cameo as a smart guy and gets the best non-Gwyneth-Paltrow-dying moment in the film as he realizes that every member of the human race is a disgusting vector, while Marion Cotillard...I'm sorry, I got distracted. Marion Cotillard. The bulk of the piece finds smart people working together towards the salvation of the human race, setting Contagion apart in a genre that usually has superheroes working towards similar goals. Its claims to legacy are the boost it will undoubtedly provide to Purell stock and the likelihood that it will motivate people to join government egghead agencies that Republicans would like to dismantle. Both losing propositions, I admit, but such might be the ultimate moral of the film.
Contagion is the kind of Big Message prestige picture Stanley Kramer would have directed once upon a time, only without Kramer's trademark tone deafness, weaknesses with pacing, and unimaginative casting and filmmaking. With a bona fide hotshot like Soderbergh at the helm, the whole thing moves along briskly without offending a great many artistic sensibilities whilst revealing a few surprise avenues of discussion along the way. I like, for instance, that it's unapologetic about terrorizing someone like Marion Cotillard with an entire village of Chinese peasants. Contagion doesn't, however, manage to be disruptive in any way, landing like a thriller in an age when thrillers already play for keeps and mostly forgettable by comparison. The stakes couldn't be higher, and the scenario of suburban chaos it presents is plausible, but I don't believe that our cynicism as a culture permits the beginning of the end of the world with a conclusion that celebrates the essential decency of other people. To go from threatening the daughter's boyfriend at gunpoint to a tableau borrowed from the end minutes of Sixteen Candles does a lot to relegate Contagion to a movie that's at best good enough to be a disappointment.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Contagion docks on Blu-ray in an appropriately sterile 1.78:1, 1080p transfer. The HD-generated image is bright, clean, perfect; I realize this movie gives OCD cases the heebie-jeebies, but rarely has a decaying world looked so unthreateningly antiseptic. As is wont to happen when shooting with the Red camera, whites run hot, but detail, tack-sharp though it is, has cinematic affectations that transcend digital video. While I noticed some moiré patterns that may or may not originate at the source, any artifacts are surely compensated for by the colours, which are intense yet precise--when not draped in a veil of increasingly arbitrary blue tint, that is. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track showcases a flat soundmix that only really comes alive during diegesis-violating flashbacks to Gwyneth Paltrow contaminating an entire casino, although Cliff Martinez's pulsing, synth-driven score has both reach and depth.
Two featurettes--"The Reality of Contagion" (11 mins., HD) and "The Contagion Detectives" (5 mins., HD)--feel all of a piece as they touch on the production's dedication to authenticity. Curiously, director Steven Soderbergh is not interviewed and only briefly glimpsed (or is that "Peter Andrews"?), but Sanjay Gupta and most of the all-star cast contribute soundbites--including, to my delight, a Botox'd-looking Paltrow, who utters the immortal phrase "in a society that relies so heavily on the infrastructure of society." (I don't even really know why I'm picking on Paltrow--talk about contagious.) Lastly, a jokey "How a Virus Changes the World" animation (2 mins., HD) draws an analogy between pandemics and Bieber Fever. You know my motto: Starve a cold, beat a Bieber. Some studio ephemera cues up on startup; a combination DVD/Digital Copy fills out the keepcase. Originally published: January 12, 2012.