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Contagion: Blu-ray + DVD + UltraViolet Digital Copy Review

Contagion (2011) movie poster Contagion

Theatrical Release: September 9, 2011 / Running Time: 106 Minutes / Rating: PG-13 / Songs List

Director: Steven Soderbergh / Writer: Scott Z. Burns

Cast: Marion Cotillard (Dr. Leonora Orantes), Matt Damon (Mitch Emhoff), Laurence Fishburne (Dr. Ellis Cheever), Jude Law (Alan Krumwiede), Gwyneth Paltrow (Beth Emhoff), Kate Winslet (Dr. Erin Mears), Bryan Cranston (RADM Lyle Haggerty), Jennifer Ehle (Dr. Ally Hextall), Elliott Gould (Dr. Ian Sussman), Chin Han (Sun Feng), John Hawkes (Roger), Anna Jacoby-Heron (Jory Emhoff), Josie Ho (Li Fai's Sister), Sanaa Lathan (Aubrey Cheever), Demetri Martin (Dr. David Eisenberg), Armin Rohde (Damian Leopold), Enrico Colantoni (Dennis French), Larry Clarke (Dave), Monique Gabriela Curnen (Lorraine Vasquez), Tien You Chui (Li Fai), Daria Strokous (Irina)

Buy Contagion from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + UltraViolet Digital Copy • DVD + UV DC • Movie-Only Blu-ray + UV DC • Instant Video

Steven Soderbergh can't seem to decide what kind of director he is. His career began, like many others before and since, with small, independent movies, the first of which -- 1989's Sex, Lies, and Videotape -- earned him wide notice and an original screenplay Oscar nomination. Soderbergh seemed to be on the path to important, serious filmmaker,
a fact confirmed when he picked up a nearly unprecedented two Best Director Oscar nominations in 2001, winning for the drug war drama Traffic. Soderbergh then extended his streak of commercial success with the fun, star-studded remake Ocean's Eleven, which was highly praised but felt like a light departure from his real calling.

Unable to deny himself more pleasurable experiences, the director reteamed with his large, winning cast on Ocean's Twelve (2004) and Ocean's Thirteen (2007) to decreasing but still formidable returns. Soderbergh's more artistic-minded projects from the same time (The Good German and the subsequently-split epic Che) failed to connect with audiences, as did the low-budget works the director released by unpredictable alternate distribution methods (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience). Soderbergh's commercial viability, as well as that of repeat collaborator Matt Damon, seemed questionable after the meager reception given the well-reviewed fall 2009 drama The Informant!. By then, Soderbergh had announced plans to retire from filmmaking, his interest in the form diminished.

And now, here is Contagion, a moderately artistic, reasonably commercial, star-studded outbreak drama, the likes of which we haven't seen in quite some time.

News of his wife's death does not instantly compute for Minnesota dad Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon). The CDC's Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) drops some reproduction rate knowledge on the Minnesota Department of Health.

Covering ground more familiar to Roland Emmerich and sweeps season TV movies of yore, Contagion depicts a contemporary doomsday situation. It starts with the sudden, inexplicable Thanksgiving week death of Elizabeth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow, killed off surprisingly quickly but not yet out of the picture), a Minneapolis wife and mother who recently returned from a Hong Kong business trip. Doctors can only rule out all obvious causes, while suspecting her international travel might be connected. Others begin falling ill and dying shortly after, including people from all parts of the globe who had contact with Emhoff.

Medical authorities are quick and vigilant to pounce on what appears to be a fast-acting, highly contagious, and heretofore unknown virus. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), the chief of the Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is immediately on the case, processing data and managing public panic. His young protιgι (Kate Winslet, a typically convincing American) is one of many who spring into action to examine and treat the afflicted. The numbers of confirmed cases and casualties rises speedily in an assortment of metropolitan areas around the globe.

Numbers alone, even great ones that escalate to the millions, don't always have meaning, so Contagion wisely attaches a handful of human faces to put this outbreak in perspective. There is Emhoff's widower Mitch (Matt Damon), who is found immune to the disease but also loses his son and is terrified of losing his teenaged daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron). There are the scientists who are working to comprehend the virus and develop a vaccine. A French doctor from Geneva (Marion Cotillard) looks over security footage from Emhoff's Hong Kong stay, hopeful for a clue. Then there is Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a popular conspiratorial Australian blogger in San Francisco who is convinced that governments are withholding a perfectly viable cure called Forsythia to maximize profits.

As the virus spreads and its reproduction rate soars to that once held by polio, desperation strikes the public with drastic consequences on the world's infrastructures. While the quest for a vaccine persists, many go to great lengths to protect themselves and their loved ones.

Australian medical blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) defends himself in a contamination suit. CDC chief Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) combats misinformation in a television interview.

Contagion demonstrates yet again Soderbergh's winning ability to supply both style and substance. This film is technically exquisite, showing great strength in visuals, sound, music (a fitting electronic score by Cliff Martinez), and, above all else, editing.
On a lesser movie, all of that might be the center of attention. Here, though, it all goes towards heightening a compelling human drama.

The premise is extremely relevant, with the fears created by the H1N1 outbreak of 2009 fresh in mind. Those not among the thousands personally affected by that pandemic consider the media attention it received an inappropriate overreaction, a sentiment acknowledged here. But Contagion takes that scare and multiplies it by a hundred. The frightening nature of germs spreading is made all the more potent by the docudrama-type precision and realism on display here. One gathers that this is absolutely how such a threatening outbreak might go down and we get the fascinating views from the very top of the power chain (those holding the greatest commodity of all in such a situation: information) to the driven professionals on whom hopes are hung to everyday people like you and I.

The script by Scott Z. Burns, who adapted The Informant! and, with two others, The Bourne Ultimatum, is meticulous, the product of endless research almost unbelievably obtained by a single individual. It plays things straight and sharp, foregoing sentimentality, avoiding exposition as much as possible, and entrusting the audience to be alert enough to pick up on some subtleties.

Of course, Burns has the benefit of having his dialogue delivered by some of the most accomplished actors working today. The amount of talent Soderbergh assembled for the Ocean's movies amazed, but the all-star cast of this thriller seems to surpass it, at least in Academy Award nominations and wins. This is a screenplay that so easily could have ended up in the hands of Transformers and Twilight cast members, but Soderbergh instead clearly used his friendships and actor-friendly reputation to line up stars, none of whom treats this as an easy, mindless paycheck. The actors' convictions and Soderbergh's reliable flair add up to a highly appealing and satisfying experience, one of 2011's most widely enjoyable. You can find fault in neglected and underwritten arcs that don't stand up perfectly to scrutiny, but there is so much going on that the few weak spots hardly do anything to diminish successful thrills and sensory delights.

Contagion grossed $76 million domestically and another $60 M in foreign markets. Those numbers weren't on par with the Ocean's capers or Roland Emmerich's disaster flicks and they might have been beneath Warner Bros. Pictures' expectations given the cast, subject matter, and $60 M production budget. But that was still a respectable showing for a film that opened on the week of Labor Day. Contagion received some of last year's higher ratings on the Rotten Tomatoes' Tomatometer, outranking all but a few wide releases. It will be interesting to see if that goodwill translates into any awards recognition (to date, it's gotten just two minor nominations), although its only perceived shots are in technical categories, where it is likely to be eclipsed by more effects-driven whizbang.

Soderbergh has just three movies left to be seen: the ensemble action thriller Haywire, which opens in theaters next Friday; the June drama Magic Mike based on Channing Tatum's experiences as a male stripper; and, shooting in summer, the HBO telemovie Behind the Candelabra, a Liberace biopic starring Michael Douglas and featuring Damon as his lover. After that, it's supposedly a life of painting for the stylish director.

Contagion, meanwhile, came to DVD, Blu-ray, and digital download last week. We look at Warner's two-disc Blu-ray + DVD + UltraViolet Digital Copy combo pack here.

Contagion Blu-ray + DVD + UltraViolet Digital Copy combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Surround 2.0 (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish; Blu-ray only: Portuguese, Korean, Chinese
Not Closed Captioned; Blu-ray Extras Subtitled
Release Date: January 3, 2012
Two single-sided discs (BD-25 & DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $35.99
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in standalone DVD ($28.98 SRP), movie-only Blu-ray ($29.98 SRP),
and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Contagion boasts stunning picture and sound on Blu-ray. The 1.78:1 visuals (a slightly surprising but perfectly suitable aspect ratio choice) are as clean, sharp, and detailed as any 1080p. True to his tastes, Soderbergh (who as usual, handles cinematography under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) often gives the film a tint of blue or yellow based on the setting. The default 5.1 DTS-HD master audio is equally pleasing, distributing music and effects expertly with no drawbacks. In short, this is as close to a flawless feature presentation as today's home video technology allows.

The combo pack DVD's picture isn't quite as sparkling, but not subjected to excessive compression, both it and the potent Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack proved quite satisfactory in sampling.

CNN's chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta testifies to "The Reality of 'Contagion.'" The TakePart short "How a Virus Changes the World" uses comedy to convey its serious lessons about infectious diseases.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Contagion is joined by just three HD bonus features, the first two exclusive to Blu-ray. "The Reality of Contagion" (11:29) collects remarks from cast and crew (but not the director), who describe the movie as a cautionary tale. The comments largely focus on the production's research in biosafety labs and making use of real protocols and data. Writer Scott Z.
Burns also describes how he wanted to parallel the central outbreak with the viral nature of information transmission on the Internet. It's a solid general featurette and one which contains some interesting deleted footage and B-roll.

"The Contagion Detectives" (4:57) further celebrates the real advisors on whom the cast based their performances. Both actors and those they consulted speak highly of their learning/teaching experience.

The one feature also included on DVD (but not the DVD here) is "How a Virus Changes the World", a fast-paced 2-minute animated short created by the social awareness site TakePart. It supplies real common sense tips with a good amount of humor.

As has always been my experience with Warner Blu-rays, the listed BD-Live section (which promised something from A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas) was inaccessible both on my Sony player and my BD-ROM drive, the latter of which it froze. Oh, darn.

The final extra is the digital copy, which the package goes to great lengths to identify as the UltraViolet kind. That means you don't need a DVD-ROM drive to access it, but you will need two accounts and an Internet connection to stream it on your computer or portable device. Reactions to the format have been pretty unfavorable, most taking issue with iTunes incompatibility and the fact that it's a stream instead of a file. But for the time being, this is all you can expect to get from Warner in the way of digital copies.

Despite the fact that the digital copy files are left off the DVD, that doesn't mean the second disc here is the same one you can buy on its own. Nope, this one drops the TakePart short, disc-loading ads, and a Dolby Surround 2.0 mix, which for whatever reason is included on the Blu-ray Disc. I don't get why the studio would take the time to author a slightly more barebones DVD just for this. For that matter, I'm not sure why Warner bothers suppressing bonus features from the DVD versions; anyone following the industry knows that DVD sales are down. The studio might as well do what they can to make discs more attractive and raise customer satisfaction. It's not like people can't recognize that features that were once DVD standards are now reserved for the higher price of Blu-ray. In general, I get the feeling that the novelty of bonus features has worn off for much of the general public.

The poster shots of the six top-billed "Contagion" stars share equal-sized rectangles on the Blu-ray menu.

The BD opens with an ad for Blu-ray 3D and one against tobacco.

In usual Warner fashion, the menu on both discs is nothing more than a static reformatted poster design set to score. Interestingly, leaving the Blu-ray menu unattended after watching the movie plays the three bonus features in succession, something otherwise not achieved. The BD doesn't support bookmarks but does resume playback some of the time.

The eco-friendly Blu-ray case puts a disc on either side, covering the DVD with an insert holding your unique digital copy/WB Insider Rewards code. The case is topped by a cardboard slipcover, which is the only part mentioning the DVD and digital copy.

French epidemiologist Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) finds herself in an interesting position of conflict in Hong Kong. Though quickly killed off, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) remains a presence as her fateful final days are pieced together.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Steven Soderbergh's Contagion obviously recalls and invites comparisons to Outbreak. Both star-studded virus thrillers offer a good, engaging time for viewers of almost every age.
Soderbergh's movie has more style, his cast has more prior accolades to their name (several of Outbreak's stars took off after filming that 1995 flick), and the passing of sixteen years renders this a lot more timely. But the results are comparable and I suspect if you liked one, you'll like the other (and the opposite as well), especially if you're old enough to remember movies from the mid-'90s.

Warner's Blu-ray delivers a knockout feature presentation and three decent little extras. While the latter might well leave you wanting more, the former is sure to satisfy you and that's what matters most. I rank Contagion in the top quartile of the 2011 releases I've seen and strongly recommend a viewing. I'm happy to have this combo pack in my collection and I think you would be too.

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Related Reviews:
Directed by Steven Soderbergh: Ocean's Thirteen • Traffic (Criterion Collection Blu-ray)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes • Moneyball • The Road • Zodiac (Director's Cut) • The Walking Dead: The Complete First Season
Matt Damon: Hereafter • The Rainmaker • True Grit • Invictus • The Brothers Grimm | Laurence Fishburne: 21 • Predators
Kate Winslet: Revolutionary Road • Finding Neverland | Gwyneth Paltrow: Iron Man • Proof | Marion Cotillard: Midnight in Paris • Nine
Jude Law: Sherlock Holmes | John Hawkes: Winter's Bone | Bryan Cranston: Breaking Bad: The Complete Second Season

The Films of Steven Soderbergh:

Contagion Songs List (in order of use): Michael J. Thomas - "Amante Del Vino", Bono - "All I Want Is You"

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Reviewed January 14, 2012.



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