Contagion review (Blu-ray)

Remember Outbreak? Where Dustin Hoffman tried to save the world from a diseased monkey? Contagion covers much the same subject but without the balls-out action. As such, it’s very easy to admire – and you have to love any film that treats audience members as if they’ve got more than a degree of intelligence – but, for all the chilling horror on display, from the “every-man-for-himself” attitude that sweeps the planet to the deadly effects of the virus itself, it’s hard to feel any great emotion.

Unsurprisingly, given Soderbergh’s presence, this is a dense, well-written and well-acted ensemble piece. It’s also disturbing; the depressingly simple incident that caused the outbreak is revealed at the film’s end, and there’s a distinct sense of the futility of life when such random circumstances can result in the worldwide deaths of millions. Will you actually care though? That’s the question. Sure, you’ll be stunned at the matter-of-fact presentation and the grim realisation that, if something like bird flu or the latest virus did sweep the world as they keep warning, this is pretty much what life is going to be like. Mass graves. Panic buying. Looters attacking private homes. The loss of so many things that give us quality of life. There is no emergency dash in a helicopter where Cuba Gooding Jr can save the day. If Outbreak is every conventional cop movie ever made, Contagion is Se7en, just with the head-in-a-box scene drawn out to over an hour.

Funnily enough, the link here is Paltrow, the final victim in Se7en and the first in Contagion. After a business trip to Hong Kong, she returns to her husband (Damon) and promptly dies. Similar cases emerge from around the world, slowly at first and then more rapidly the virus sweeps the planet via the most minimal of human contact. You’ve heard the warnings of bowls of peanuts on bars? The germs on the handrail on public transport? Contagion takes that paranoia and draws it out painstakingly to the Nth degree.

Rather than follow a conventional narrative, Soderbergh jumps continents and time. Stories are set up and then ... not dropped as such, just left hanging to be explained by a line of dialogue later. It’s confusing initially – perhaps deliberately unsettling too? – but it’s a bold stroke that rewards concentration, with the effects on life (the lack of intimacy, the loss of basic privileges, the refusal to accept what’s happening) subtly handled rather than spoonfed. The politics of drug production are of equal focus via Dr Cheever (Fishburne) of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, attempting to predict the virus’s path and find a cure.

The catch is, for all the good things (and that certainly doesn’t include Law’s alleged Australian accent), there are flaws and that “coldfish” emotional distance makes Contagion a hard film to like. The quality is not under dispute, but it’s hard to recommend.

EXTRAS ★★★ The Blu-ray Triple Play features a hi-definition, a standard definition and an Ultraviolet digital copy of the film. The bonus material consists of three featurettes: False Comfort Zone: The Reality of Contagion; The Contagion Detectives; and Contagion: How a Virus Changes the World.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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