Claudette Barius/Warner Bros. Pictures

Steven Soderbergh's star-studded plague drama scares without visual effects.

A shrewd, unsensationalistic, nonvisual-effects-dependent global disaster melodrama, Contagion creates a credible picture of how the world might react (and, to a point, has reacted) in the face of a rapidly spreading mystery disease for which no cure exists. Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns create unease and simmering tension without going over the top into souped-up suspense or gross-out moments (with one possible exception), which will automatically lessen interest among the lowest-common-denominator crowd. But the fine cast, likely solid critical reaction and undeniable topicality position this as a robust box-office performer for early fall.

Spanning the planet but keeping his focus intimate, Soderbergh sets up a scenario by which everyday human contact triggers an intercontinental plague that instantly transforms how people relate to one another and throws governments and medical institutions into a panic. The immediate twin issues are how to combat the disease, whatever it is, and how to deal with a populace increasingly inflamed by rumors that, thanks to personal electronic communications, travel even faster than the virus.

Despite such familiar devices as ticking-clock calendar postings -- "Day 14," "Day 131" -- the feeling is far more realistic and science-based than artificially concocted. Notwithstanding the urgent struggles faced by a diverse group of characters, including the regular Joe played by Matt Damon, the heart of the movie rests with the medical professionals played by Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle and Laurence Fishburne. Also facing danger -- 26 million will die within four months -- are Gwyneth Paltrow (as Damon's doomed wife), Marion Cotillard (as a World Health Organization doctor), Kate Winslet (representing the Center for Disease Control) and Elliott Gould (engaging but underutilized as a skeptical scientist). Congenitally opposed to official explanations for anything is rogue English blogger Alan Krumwiede (a compellingly ferocious Jude Law), who begins an online crusade to expose an alleged conspiracy between governments and pharmaceutical companies.

The plot calls for intense performances all around, but first among equals are Winslet and Ehle. Winslet's abilities are amply known, but whenever Ehle acts, she makes it clear she entirely belongs in the company of Streep (whom she resembles), Winslet, Blanchett, Kidman, Linney, et al. She just needs a few choice parts.

Shooting as usual under the nom de camera Peter Andrews with the Red camera, Soderbergh achieves a you-are-there sensation throughout while working in superb, diverse international locations. The only significant "yuck" moment comes during the autopsy on Paltrow's character, when doctors peel her scalp back over her face.

Implicitly, Contagion poses a rhetorical question about how you split the difference between making an intelligent, plausible film about something as alarming as a worldwide plague and creating a mass-audience entertainment sufficiently titillating in its catastrophic consequences to entice a huge public. Unsurprisingly, Soderbergh has tilted closer to the former but is familiar enough with the latter to quicken the collective pulse.

Release date Sept. 9 (Warner Bros.)
Cast Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet
Director Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns
Producters Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Gregory Jacobs