A virus of unknown origin races across the globe. As society unravels and those affected/infected try to cope, WHO officials and CDC scientists work to contain the outbreak and find a cure.
Remember Wolfgang Petersenís Outbreak? Remember how it started out just fine but slowly began to unravel, trying to turn Dustin Hoffman into Harrison Ford and getting quite silly before it reached its conclusion? I dislike that movie not only because it made me waste a couple hours of my time but also because itís the reason the planned adaptation of Richard Prestonís The Hot Zone never came to fruition.
Outbreak was rushed into production in order to beat the film version of Prestonís non-fiction bestseller to the punch, and its failure at the box office put the brakes on The Hot Zone. That ticked me off, as Prestonís book remains one of my favorite pieces of non-fiction, a thrilling, blazing, well researched piece of reportage that reads like a crackling piece of fiction. Had it been pulled off, the movie could have been fantastic, offering genuine smarts and tension instead of laughably lousy bits where the aging hero leaps from helicopters.
So where am I going with my customary rambling? Well, Steven Soderberghís Contagion is close to what Iíd imagined when I attempted to visualize the movie version of The Hot Zone. Although theyíre not completely successful, Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns tell a story that juggles numerous plotlines and characters, spreading their focus to several levels of the epidemicís impact.
Thereís not much in the way of character development, but the story uses archetypes smartly (the presence of archetypes shouldnít surprise anyone; this is a disaster movie, after all). It also contains enough science (real science, thankfully) to make the technical side of the story clear without drowning you in jargon or techno-babble. And itís fueled by a pace that kicks into overdrive early on and rarely lets up. (Given all this, I could have likened it to the better works of Michael Crichton, but the Hot Zone thing seemed less clichť.)
The plot follows four main storylines (but it doesnít give them equal time): A man (Matt Damon) whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) was the first diagnosed case of the virus but is himself immune tries to ensure his teenage daughter doesnít become infected. A CDC official (Laurence Fishburne) works to contain public hysteria and uncertainty while coordinating the efforts of a doctor (Kate Winslet) working to quarantine the infected and a researcher (Jennifer Ehle) searching for a vaccine. A World Health Organization epidemiologist (Marion Cotillard) attempts to trace the virus back to its original human vector. A blogger (Jude Law) attempts to convince the world the U.S. government and big pharmaceutical companies are colluding to keep the nature of the virus and any possible homeopathic remedies buried.
Soderbergh and Burns flitter back and forth between these plots, which is an obvious way of building tension and momentum but one that still works. Although he photographed the movie under his standard pseudonym, Soderbergh (tellingly) turned the editing over to Stephen Mirrione, who won an Oscar for cutting Traffic. Scenes donít run any longer than is absolutely necessary, and they fluidly flow into and out of one another. Not to diminish the efforts of anyone else, but I think Mirrioneís work is the movieís strongest asset. Movies with this many characters and this many concurrent subplots are often in danger of collapsing under their own weight or becoming too choppy to effectively tell their story; Mirrione finds just the right balance between letting the story unfold and moving it along.
That being said, Burns could have beefed up parts of his script and scaled back others. One of the subplots doesnít come to a satisfactory conclusion, while one goes to a questionable place before failing to come to any sort of conclusion. A little more time on character development probably couldnít have hurt, but at the same time this is the sort of story that often resorts to soap opera when it comes to providing a look at the lives of its characters, so maybe itís a good thing it was kept to a minimum.
So itís definitely flawed, but the sheer momentum of the movie and the easy way the story plays on the fears of the audience (are you touching your face right now? If so, stop!) help carry it. For all it gets right on other levels, Contagion is the sort of movie that would be an utter failure if there was no storytelling skill involved. Contagion gets an awful lot of mileage out of sheer storytelling skill. Iím not sure how it will hold up in the long run, but it sure as hell works.
Contagion is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, encoded at 1080p with AVC onto a 25GB disc. As I mentioned above, Soderbergh once again acted as his own cinematographer, and he also once again utilized cameras manufactured by Red Digital. Roughly half the movie has the typical Soderbergh look (at least of late), bathed in a single primary color to the point the image borders on monochromatic. The other half has a more natural look, with realistic colors that are well balanced and delineated. Sometimes the various stylistics weaken the image slightly; colors occasionally bleed or bloom, some blacks arenít resolved fully, and detail can flatten out. On the whole, though, it appears Soderbergh has finally bested the quirks of HD photography, as the image here never looks digital and isnít riddled with the inconsistencies of his earlier HD efforts.
Lossless audio comes in the form of a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The sound design is startlingly effective at times, particularly in its juxtaposition of quiet scenes and more boisterous ones; going from a scene thatís front-heavy and pin-drop quiet to one that bristles with surround action or thick atmosphere can be disconcerting, which appears to be the intent. Dialogue is always clear and natural-sounding. Cliff Martinezís score, which is eclectic but effective, sounds excellent. Thereís nothing in the way of deep bass action; the low end is primarily used to reinforce the other elements of the mix.
Dolby Digital English 2.0, French 5.1, and Spanish 5.1 tracks are also included; English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are available.
The extras here are presented in high-def.
The Reality of Contagion (11 minutes) is a collection of interview clips with the cast, who discuss the implications and possibilities of an actual pandemic.
The Contagion Detectives (5 minutes) features more cast interviews, who this time around talk about the movieís scientific advisors.
Contagion: How a Virus Changes the World (2 minutes) is a bouncy animated short (think of Jurassic Parkís ďMr. DNAĒ) that zips through the life cycle and effects of a contagious virus.
Some copies will also include a DVD and a code to download an UltraViolet digital copy.
Simply put, Contagion works.