'Contagion' (PG-13)

The most terrifying movie of the year is not about zombies or aliens or vampires or serial killers. It’s about truly scary things: ATMs. Handrails. Doorknobs. Cash. Handshakes. Water fountains. Elevator buttons. Restaurants. Casinos. Movie theaters.
Try to watch Steven Soderbergh’s unnerving Contagion without thinking about whose hands last touched the armrests you’re using. You will fail. Then pay attention to how many times you carelessly touch your face while watching the movie (or even reading this sentence). Are you getting the picture? We’re one bad happenstance away from a virulent killer virus that could wipe out large segments of the world population, Soderbergh tells us, and there isn’t a whole lot we can do about it (though washing your hands often is a good start).

The film, written by Scott Z. Burns and featuring an impressive all-star cast, starts with a cough and leads to global desperation as a mysterious, swift-acting virus comes to the attention of world health authorities. YouTube provides early evidence of what’s afoot by way of a cellphone video of a man collapsing and dying in front of shocked onlookers on a subway train. In the new world order of social media, there isn’t much hope of keeping a pandemic under wraps.

Soderbergh, rarely a waster of words or time, moves the plot along almost as quickly as the virus spreads. Contagion may be the most expensive public-service ad ever filmed, but it’s also a surprisingly light-on-its-feet action thriller.

Much like he did with Traffic, Soderbergh juggles his unwieldy cast with ease and sets up Contagion as something of a detective story, a who-spread-it instead of a whodunnit. His characters pause occasionally to deliver sobering facts about, say, the death toll of the 1918-19 Spanish influenza outbreak, which killed 50 million worldwide by some estimates and more by others, or the deadly efficiency with which viruses can multiply (providing some of the most frightening mathematical equations you’ve ever had to solve).

Several storylines and characters emerge: An apparently immune father in Minneapolis (Matt Damon) tries to protect his teenage daughter after his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) drops dead two days after returning from an overseas business trip. A World Health Organization doctor (Marion Cotillard) tries to track Patient Zero through security videos at a casino in Hong Kong while her desperate colleagues there know their home villages are being ravaged. A U.S. Centers for Disease Control official (Laurence Fishburne) sends a doctor (Kate Winslet) out among the sick while he tries to find ways to stem the rising panic and potential chaos. An activist blogger (Jude Law) challenges official assertions about how fast a vaccine can be made available, claiming the government is in bed with pharmaceutical companies that are plotting to make billions instead of save lives. The fact that Soderbergh makes you care about so many characters who don’t get a lot of screen time is a testament to his skill and that of his cast.

There isn’t much in Contagion that doesn’t seem plausible, even if you’re not the paranoid sort. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t leave the house without a bottle of Purell, the movie may make you rethink overseas travel — or even using a public restroom. Though Soderbergh doesn’t end his film on an utterly bleak note, he drives home the point that pandemics are the cost of doing business on this crowded, changing planet.

Cast: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Gwyneth Paltrow.

Director: Steven Soderbergh.

Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns.

Producers: Gregory James, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Steven Soderbergh.

A Warner Bros. studios release. Running time: 105 minutes. Disturbing content, language. Opens Friday Sept. 9 at area theaters.