It's probably no mistake that someone makes a reference to Jaws early on in Contagion. They're lamenting that the general public can become terrified of beaches when a plastic shark wiggles around on a movie screen, but dozens of public health agencies working in concert can't convince people to take simple steps to avoid the very real possibility of a flu epidemic. Contagion does for viruses what Jaws did for shark attacks—as a global pandemic spreads at blinding speed onscreen, in the background, Steven Soderbergh invites you to notice the nameless people touching their faces, handling doorknobs and silverware, and in dozens of other tiny ways serving as the vehicle for the villain of the piece. Soon you're jumping at every cough and sniffle in the movie theater and afraid to touch anything on the bus on the way home without a gallon of Purell in your bag.
Soderbergh has assembled a near–Ocean's Eleven caliber cast here—Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Elliott Gould, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law—and everybody seems happy to play their small role quickly and efficiently, and then get offstage so the story can roll on and the death toll can climb into the millions. (Some of the parts are too brief—turns out, watching Gwyneth Paltrow die of a horrible, brain-consuming disease is immensely satisfying.) Laurence Fishburne provides most of the exposition dumps in as painless a manner as possible, and Soderbergh's camera speeds along from country to country, impartially observing the terrible decisions survivors have to make as things go from bad to worse to unimaginable.
For a global disaster movie with a biblical body count, Soderbergh keeps the scale of Contagion nice and human—we see families affected by the pandemic, the media trying to tell the story as it happens, and, refreshingly, the brave public health employees who are trying to do the jobs they've spent their whole lives preparing for. Who knew that the most effective horror movie in years would star a microscopic monster?