I’m not sure that a terrifying movie about the dangers of a global pandemic is the kind of cheery escape you might be looking for on a weekend full of 9/11 remembrances, but in and of itself, Contagion is just about as good as they come.

Unlike 1995’s thoroughly cheesy Outbreak, Contagion is a realistic, well thought-out, refreshingly un-“Hollywood” thriller that shows just how simply a quick-spreading virus can cause a world-wide crisis.

Beginning with a chance handshake by American Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) in a Hong Kong casino, the unidentified virus spreads to more than 8 million people in less than two weeks. It’s airborne and there’s no cure, and within forty-eight hours of contracting the virus people die.

Beth’s husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is one of the lucky few who appear to be immune to the virus, leaving him to struggle in a search for answers and, later, survival, as everyone around him succumbs.

The all-star cast includes Lawrence Fishburne as a higher-up at the Centers for Disease Control, Kate Winslet as a CDC field researcher, Marion Cotillard as an epidemiologist at the World Health Organization, and Jude Law as a Smoking Gun-style blogger who’s got his own agenda. Each and every one turns in what amounts to little more than a supporting role, but they’re each powerfully effective in their own right, contributing to show how a microscopic germ can wreak so much havoc in everyone’s lives.

Director Steven Soderbergh, working from a script by Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!), has crafted a harrowing and fascinating film that’s as much a horror film (if not more so) as anything with creatures that go bump in the night, but it’s also a straight-up drama. The closest comparison may actually be to Soderbergh’s own Traffic from 2000, a similarly all-star, multi-plotted morality tale illustrating the impact of a global epidemic, though here it’s a virus and not drugs that’s the star of the show.

From the opening moments straight through until the superbly satisfying ending, Contagion will have you perched on the edge of your seat. The one downside? You may not want to shake anyone’s hand ever again. Or, at the very least, you may find yourself wanting to buy stock in Purel.

5/5 stars