'Contagion': Please pass the hand sanitizer

The thriller Contagion does what most films about deadly plagues don't: make reality scary.

From The Andromeda Strain to 28 Days Later, killer epidemics have been accompanied by some otherworldly phenomenon — aliens or zombies. What Steven Soderbergh does so well in this film — which stars Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard and Jude Law — is track the global spread of a lethal flulike virus in a way the audience can understand. There is never a moment when you don't think it is possible, and that makes it one of the most chilling movies of the year.

One of the first casualties is a business executive (Paltrow) who has just returned home to Minneapolis from a trip to Hong Kong. When she goes into convulsions on the kitchen floor, her husband (Damon) is concerned but, like many of us, has faith in medicine.

Even the doctors first think it's probably the flu and then a rare virus. No one realizes it's the beginning of a pandemic.

It takes a while for officials to act. Finally, a deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Fishburne) sends another doctor (Winslet) into the field as the dead begin to mount.

She tries to implement procedures to isolate the infected, but petty local officials worry about who's going to pay. (The moment makes you see current arguments in Washington about cutting expenses today without regard for public safety tomorrow in a different light.)

Of course, as the disease spreads, the media weighs in, with some reporters fanning fears, as do some politicians. Meanwhile, there is a panicked populace, with rioters and looters.

Soderbergh handles the multiple stories with a detached immediacy. His handheld camera work gives you the feeling you are right there as the apocalyptic events unfold, but it allows you enough space to take it in.

What makes Contagion so frightening is that we have seen what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans. Imagine that on a national or global scale.

Contagion retails for $28.98 on DVD or $35.99 on Blu-ray.