Cate Marquis, A&E Editor

Fear of pandemics like the 1918 influenza has gripped the world since the words “bird flu” became common. Director Steven Soderbergh puts that fear to cinematic use in the real-science thriller “Contagion.” This real-world thriller – because this threat is too real to call it science fiction – also boast a remarkable all-star cast, including Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law.

Panic, as much the disease, is the plague that grips the world. The film is a chilling cautionary tale because it is so accurate.

Germophobes everywhere will cringe. “Contagion” gets the science right, one of the most realistic of medical-themed films ever, which makes what happens all the scarier. Every time someone coughs, we flinch. Simple things, like blowing on dice or eating some peanuts from a bowl at a casino bar, suddenly look ominous.

For those of us who know something about pandemics or molecular biology, there is not much to surprise in the track of this contagion. However, most audience members will be terrified, particular germophobes. You may never touch a surface and then your face again.

The film counts down the days from the start of that plague, starting with “Day 2,” leaving the mystery of its origin until later. Besides, that second person infected is the one responsible for the worldwide transmission.

Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a globe-trotting business woman returning from a trip to Hong Kong to her home in Minnesota, where husband Thomas (Matt Damon) and young son are waiting for her. Beth feels sick immediately upon her return, although she thinks its jet-lag. It is not and seizures send her to the hospital, where the alarmed doctors quickly call in the Centers for Disease Control.

The fact that the victim made a couple of connecting flights mean that things are already getting scarier. Lawrence Fishburne plays Dr. Cheever, head of the CDC, who dispatches Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minnesota, to investigate the virulent disease and contain the outbreak. Meanwhile, samples are are proving difficult to analyze and are sent by lab researcher Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) to a hot-shot researcher Dr. Sussman (Elliot Gould) in California.

Cases pop up around the globe, bringing the World Health Organization, which dispatches Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to Hong Kong, one of the potential sites for the disease’s origin.

The general public’s unease about the spreading disease and lack of official word about it opens the door for  aggressive blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). Krumwiede may be more interested in hits to his website, and maybe a money-making deal on the side, than in really providing a service to the public.

Each organization sees events through their own biases, so the first thought from the U. S. military is terrorism. But Cheever assures them  nature itself “weaponized” this virus.

Only Mother Nature and our globalized world are the source of this plague. When the first big name star is killed off, we know Soderburgh means business about keeping us on edge.

But the real scare is not the pandemic, but the panic that spreads with it. The film also does not shy away from showing how bureaucracy, turf-wars and even individual egos can get in the way in the critical early stages of transmission. However, once the scope of threat becomes clear, everyone puts the task first.

As the director makes clear, a lack of official forthrightness with the public in an effort to “avoid panic,” is exactly what opens the door to rumor, opportunists and panic.

Of course, the acting is strong, but if the film has a flaw, it is in the fact that there are so many characters and storylines. Characters get pared down to ideas, with little sense of their personal lives, despite this first-rate cast.

Hollywood has done so many over-the-top scary disaster films that doing one that is realistic seems somehow, well, less scary. But this is no horror film like “28 Days Later,” it is a drama that offers some hope, that the world could  face down this threat and selfless cooperation could play a role.

“Andromeda Strain” may be the original pandemic thriller but “Contagion” may be the best.

“Contagion” is worth seeing for its very realistic portrayal of the science and pandemics, although it is not   flawless as a film. The cast of big name stars will draw people in, but hopefully they will leave with a little insight on real-world risks, both of pandemics and panic.

Grade: B

By: Cate Marquis, A&E Editor