So I finally saw Steven Soderbergh‘s Contagion (i.e., in Manhattan the night before last) and re-discovered what I’d known all all along — that popcorn thrillers can be extremely cool and culturally nutritious if they’re (a) smart, (b) clever, (c) believable, (d) stylistically intriguing and (e) packaged with taste and class. Most thrillers fall short to varying degrees; many (especially those starring Jason Statham) are the cinematic equivalent of fast-food or Cinnabons. But not this puppy.

The Soderbergh pedigree alone should tell you that Contagion delivers with quiet pulsing authority and creepy chills. The reviews (mine included) will tell you that also. I can’t say it’s the kind of film that sticks to the ribs exactly because it’s mainly dramatizing standard fears of pandemic viruses and diseases that we carry around in our heads all the time anyway, but it’s done really well…and that’s the whole game. I especially admired Soderbergh’s decision to minimize emotional freakout scenes, which are always tedious when overdone.

My only beef is that I wish it could’ve lasted longer than 105 minutes. I could’ve easily rolled with a 120- or 150-minute version. (Maybe that’ll happen with the DVD/Bluray.) Oh, and I would’ve really liked to have seen it in IMAX. (Warner Bros. publicity didn’t offer that experience.) Maybe I’ll just pay for an IMAX viewing this weekend in Toronto. Why not, right?

Contagion is about a 100% fatal, one-touch virus that starts in Hong Kong and moves around the world in record time. It’s not just the “pathogen” (a term I wasn’t exactly familiar with before this film came out) that destroys so completely, but the panic that kicks in once people sense shortages and class favoritism and a lack of regulatory disclosure.

The strongest and most commanding characters are three women physician/scientists played by Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle and Marion Cotillard . After these three performance-wise comes Jude Law as an unscrupulous blogger who exploits the situation, etc. Matt Damon plays a kind of everyman dad who’s naturally immune to the plague. Laurence Fishburne plays a kind of compassionate bureaucratic elitist. Elliott Gould plays a diligent, independent-minded scientist. Bryan Cranston plays a military guy with a hairpiece. Demetri Martin plays a scientist with a 1964 Beatle haircut. Gwynneth Paltrow buys it early on, and then we get to see her scalp opened up and peeled back by autopsy guys. And John Hawkes, who always plays demonic nutters and fiends, surprises by playing a caring, mellow-attitude, non-psychotic dad….nice.

Contagion‘s ultra-believable script is by Scott Z. Burns. The production tab was $60 million or thereabouts. It began shooting almost exactly a year ago and wrapped last January. Soderbergh shot it himself with the Red Epic-X “Tattoo” digital camera. Locations include Switzerland, England, Dubai, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Hong Kong, Minneapolis, Japan, Brazil, Russia, and Malaysia.