The Hollywood disaster movie typically comes with quakes, asteroids, tornadoes or aliens ripping the planet to shreds and manly heroes tossing around wisecracks as they carry out impossible deeds to save the world.
Yet Steven Soderbergh figured the more authentic a potential apocalypse feels, the scarier it becomes.
Opening Friday at U.S. theaters, Soderbergh's "Contagion" lays out a terrifying scenario — the swift spread of a deadly new virus around the globe — with a mix of personal drama and merciless realism that makes it both riveting and foreboding.
From the start, director Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns aimed for an ultra-realistic tale of a pandemic so genuine and lacking in Hollywood egotism that — spoiler alert — the character played by one of the top names among its A-list cast, Gwyneth Paltrow, dies horribly in the opening minutes.
"The key phrase was 'ultra-realistic.' At the end of the day, to have everything in the film either be scientifically accurate or emotionally and practically plausible would make it scarier," Soderbergh said. "We wanted to remove this barrier between the audience and the story in which you could write it off as sort of movie (nonsense)."
Like 2000's "Traffic," the drug-war saga that earned Soderbergh an Academy Award for best director, "Contagion" follows a huge cast and weaves together divergent plot lines into a tight, feverishly paced narrative.
Paltrow plays an adulterous Minnesota woman whose business trip to Asia puts her at the center of a fluke series of events in which she's infected by a virus that jumps species, from bats to pigs to humans.
With the human immune system baffled by a virus it's never before encountered, the flu-like disease races around the world, killing people and causing panic in the United States, Great Britain, Japan, China and many other countries.
Frequent Soderbergh collaborator Matt Damon ("The Informant!," "Ocean's Eleven") is the emotional focus of "Contagion" as Paltrow's husband, a man in denial over his wife's death and misdeeds whose sole aim is to protect his daughter through the crisis.
Unlike Damon's super-agent Jason Bourne, his "Contagion" character is an everyman at the mercy of fate like the rest of the world, keeping his head down and trying to ride out the horror of mass graves, looting, makeshift hospitals, quarantine zones and the virtual breakdown of society.
"There's no vanity in any of the performances," Damon said. "The characters are flawed. They feel very real. It feels like the world that we all live in and that this could happen, because it could. The science is really accurate. They went into painstaking detail to make sure of that."
The story hurtles from place to place, following Kate Winslet as a Centers for Disease Control researcher risking her life in the field; Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle as virologists racing to crack the code of the disease; Jude Law as a blogger who adds to the panic with conspiracy theories that the government might be withholding a cure; and Marion Cotillard as a World Health Organization official trying to track how a virus normally confined to bats could infect humans.
"We want a strong immune system, so you have to be exposed to germs," Ehle said. "The scary thing is the idea of something coming that no human being has any immunity to because it has jumped species. And no amount of washing hands will protect against that."
To develop a realistic story, screenwriter Burns worked with top virologists to determine what truly could happen.
The scenario he and Soderbergh settled on — an epidemic from a virus jumping species — is one the scientists say is likely someday as human expansion continues, Burns said.
"Everything I learned says that we are overdue, and that it is inevitable as we go into these ecotones and encroach into the wild spaces," Burns said. "We're going to put bats closer to pigs and dogs, and we're going to shake things out of the treetops that we haven't seen before."
"Contagion" also touches on another sort of infection, the spread of information — and misinformation — and the fright that can follow.
Law's character is a lone blogger with his own agenda for fanning public distrust and alarm. Damon worries that traditional newspapers and TV networks also might stoke people's anxiety.
"In times of peace and quiet, they sell fear, but I wonder if in a time of genuine fear, if they'd have the restraint to actually push out good information to kind of keep people calm," Damon said.
"Because a lot would depend on how the media behaved. If people are almost panicked, you can get them to cross the line very easily. It doesn't take a lot, but I wonder if the decision would be made in the board rooms that too much panic would actually get people to turn the TV off, and then the ad revenue wouldn't be as good. So it might be, 'Wait a minute, let's sell a little reason here.' Hopefully, that would be the decision that was reached."