So Real It's Scary

In which Norm revisits Steven Soderbergh's CONTAGION in a new 4K release, and finds it really holds up.

So Real It's Scary

There are no new special features on Warner’s 4K release of Contagion, which really feels like a missed opportunity. But I can also understand why everyone involved with Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 pandemic thriller – not the cast, not the crew, not the epidemiologists and virologists who consulted on the project, not Soderbergh himself – might be unwilling to revisit the movie. Imagine the PTSD.

Contagion is Soderbergh’s version of a disaster movie, and it’s a harrowingly convincing one, detailing the global spread of a lethal virus, the fictional MEV-1, through the eyes of a dozen or so individuals – mostly American – over the course of the pandemic.

After a tense opening sequence in which an executive publicist (Gwyneth Paltrow) for a multinational company comes home to Minnesota from a Pacific Rim business trip with a cough that rapidly escalates into fever, seizures and death – leaving her bewildered husband (Matt Damon) somehow untouched – Scott Z. Burns’ screenplay puts horror and histrionics aside to focus on the efforts of the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization race to identify, track and contain whatever is spreading across the globe.

It goes about as well as you’d expect, and with a mortality rate of between 20 to 30 percent – some sixty times deadlier than COVID-19 turned out to be – the world is quickly plunged into chaos. Cities are quarantined, airports are shut down and civilians are left in a state of panic and uncertainty as the authorities struggle to communicate effectively and fringe journalists muddy the waters with misinformation. At the time, I thought Contagion was an incredibly effective thriller; now, it plays like a docudrama of an event that hadn’t happened yet.

Soderbergh and Burns’ commitment to emotional and logistical realism extends to every thread of the narrative, with an A-list cast fleshing out parts that might have felt generic in someone else’s hands. Laurence Fishburne’s quiet concern as the head of the CDC, Kate Winslet’s commitment as the epidemiologist he dispatches to Minneapolis for contact tracing, John Hawkes as a janitor who comes to him for a favor, Enrico Colantoni’s deceptively casual demeanor as a Homeland Security agent quietly making sure the outbreak isn’t a terrorist act, Bryan Cranston’s laser focus as the rear admiral overseeing America’s pandemic response, Jennifer Ehle and Demitri Martin as CDC researchers chasing a vaccine, Elliot Gould as the independent operator who risks everything to get them a little closer.

Every single cast member is doing great work. Only Marion Cotillard, as a WHO doctor whose efforts to track the origin of MEV-1 are derailed by a desperate kidnapping attempt, is underserved by the demands of the plot.

Not all of these characters will make it, and the deaths, when they happen, are given a moment to land. A researcher’s efforts to limit any further spread once she realizes she’s become infected is an eloquent summation of both her humanity and her professionalism – and her final gesture, as the virus consumes her, is even more moving for its futility.

And while I think the movie overplays its hand by having Jude Law’s grandstanding fringe journalist be as vile on the outside as he is on the inside – and Law inhabits this seething guttersnipe brilliantly – in hindsight one could also argue Burns and Soderbergh didn’t go far enough in exploring the way media grifters will say or do anything that gives them one more moment in the spotlight, even as it puts their audience in mortal danger ... and how their misinformation could even be spread at the highest levels of government. In fairness, no one dared imagine a media grifter would be the fucking president of the United States during a global pandemic.

In a catch-up interview in May 2020, when Contagion found itself back in the public consciousness for no particular reason, Soderbergh commented he and Burns were surprised by “the sociological behavior” COVID triggered – “how people have behaved as individuals, as states, as countries.” So yeah, I can imagine why no one was rushing to do a retrospective commentary.

Contagion was shot on RED cameras in native 4K, so Warner’s UHD release is a pristine port of the finished feature; the mention of an “original camera negative” in Warner’s press release must have been standard restoration boilerplate. In any case, this is a flawless presentation of Soderbergh’s too-clean aesthetic, with an HDR grade enhancing the subtle color-coding he uses to differentiate between storylines without ever pushing too hard.

The pale blues of suburban Minneapolis, the oversaturated reds of a Macau casino, the CDC’s overlit Atlanta conference rooms … everything looks crisp and sharp, the better to reveal blotches and sweat on the skin of infected people, or draw the eye to telltale drops of blood splattering on the face mask of a pathologist. Soderbergh’s bottom-weighted frame makes us feel crushed by the same anxiety as the characters, trapped in a world that’s rapidly emptying out; this viewing made me really sorry I’d never gotten the chance to see it in IMAX. It feels like it would have been overwhelming.

The 4K disc offers the extras from the 2012 special edition, all of which are downright uncanny to watch in 2024. Two production featurettes, “The Reality of Contagion” and “The Contagion Detectives”, drill into Soderbergh’s commitment to authenticity, with screenwriter Burns and producer/AD Greg Jacobs introducing us to the authors and virologists on whom they relied to get the science right. (And of course Laurie Garrett is one of them; her book, The Coming Plague, is a foundational text for this sort of thing.) Soderbergh himself is curiously absent from the interviews, possibly because he was busy setting up the next shot when the EPK team came to set: He’s visible behind the camera in almost every behind-the-scenes clip.

Only when you hear the actors discuss their roles does the project’s full range reveal itself: Ehle and Martin talk about going to biosuit boot camp with CDC researchers; Winslet professes her admiration for real-life hot-zone contact tracers and Law talks about how crucial the free flow of information would be in a crisis – though I prefer to believe he’s speaking from his character’s perspective rather than endorsing Doing Your Own Research. And Damon approaches the picture as though he’s starring in a post-apocalyptic thriller. Which, in a way, he is.

Finally, there’s the two-minute animated PSA produced for the Contagion web site, “How a Virus Changes the World”, a chipper tick-tock of how a pandemic would unfold, complete with the groaning acknowledgment that a bunch of celebrities would probably get together to record a feel-good song at some point. It was made in 2011. They saw it all coming.

Warner’s 4K edition of Contagion is available right now. No companion Blu-ray, but you do get a digital code.

Coming up: The eminently watchable Wonka. Not everything needs to be a disaster.

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