"Contagion" will do for hand sanitizer what "Jaws" did for shark repellent. From its shrewdly underplayed opening -- a couple of coughs on the soundtrack before the film's first image -- Steven Soderbergh's plague thriller insidiously eats away at your nerves.

A steady accumulation of naturalistic detail makes the advent of a doomsday virus feel not just credible but inevitable. Some thrillers make you grip your seat mate's hand in anxiety. "Contagion" will have viewers flinching if anyone touches them.

That introductory coughing is the overture to a catastrophe. The sore throat belongs to Minneapolis executive Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), returning from a trip to Asia, pale and complaining of jet lag. Actually, she's about to become the first convulsing casualty of a hell-on-Earth pandemic. She dies in mid-exam at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview (with Chicago locations making very persuasive stand-ins for Minneapolis).

Soderbergh's less-is-more approach establishes the new disease as an abomination. When two hospital workers open Beth's skull for a post-mortem, they freeze in dismay. One gulps, "Should I call someone?" "Call everyone," the other responds. The film never reveals the source of their revulsion. It doesn't have to.

Beth's shellshocked husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), wants answers about his wife's sudden death. Health officials worldwide realize that this is The Big One. Laurence Fishburne brings full-bodied authority and integrity to his role as the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Kate Winslet plays a CDC epidemiologist dispatched to Minnesota. Marion Cotillard portrays a World Health Organization official charting the spread of the virus from its first appearance at a Macau casino, and Jennifer Ehle is a virus researcher on the trail of a vaccine. It's telling that this very contemporary medical thriller features three capable women, and no men, on the dangerous front lines.

The death toll rockets, with social breakdown spreading as fast as the fatal flu. Jude Law plays a health blogger who becomes a major player as desperate millions buy into his promise of a homeopathic cure. The character of a thwarted online journalist who finds the opportunity of a lifetime amid catastrophe is another novel 21st-century touch.

Golden Valley native Scott Z. Burns ("The Informant!") peppers his screenplay with knowing references to Minnesota, with asides about "Mondale Elementary School" and a scene of Wisconsin National Guardsmen turning back fleeing motorists at the border. (When Minnesotans make a mass migration to Wisconsin, you know the End Times have arrived.)

Burns subtly links his plague tale to the real malaise of worldwide economic collapse. There are echoes of Barack Obama in Fishburne's beleaguered health czar. The genesis of the disease is the consequence of a corporate decision. The first infection occurs at a feverishly overlit casino where business types are making irresponsible high-stakes wagers.

Using major stars to anchor the sprawling cast and chronological subtitles to order the months-long story arc keep the ambitious narrative coherent. Some viewers may feel that the multi-strand narrative, with loose ends deliberately unresolved, undercuts the actors. I think it's the correct strategy. The lead character of "Contagion" isn't any member of the cast. Like "Jaws," this is a story in which nature itself is the protagonist. Humans only get the walk-on roles.