Following a summer of sequels, prequels, superheroes and gross-out comedies, the first great film of the rest of 2011 makes contact today. A globe-hopping medical thriller, Contagion depicts its devastating, plausible scenario with urgency and style.

Directed by former Baton Rougean Steven Soderbergh, Contagion earns a high place in his filmography. It begins with Day 2, a caption projected on screen in blood-red type. A 34-year-old woman played by Gwyneth Paltrow is about to board a flight from Chicago to Minneapolis. During an airport-terminal phone conversation, she coughs. Working for a multinational company, she’s returning from a business trip to Hong Kong.

A cough, physical contact with another person, touching an object that an infected person has touched - all of these everyday actions may lead to infection by a quickly spreading, previously unknown virus.

Soderbergh, directing from a script by Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant!), gives this multi-character drama a rising pulse. Recalling his Oscar-winning Traffic, the director unveils Contagion’s many characters in many places, as well as the plot’s increasingly disturbing developments, with lean, clear efficiency.

Of course, in the age of international air travel, a virus can leap from continent to continent in hours. While Paltrow’s traveling businesswoman thinks she’s suffering from jetlag in Minneapolis, a young man in Hong Kong contracts a cough and fever. A young woman in London mirrors his symptoms.

By Day 4, Paltrow and her son are both sick. And the young man in Hong Kong and young woman in London? Dead. When Paltrow dies, too, Matt Damon, playing her husband, reacts with disbelief. “What happened?” he shouts at the doctor who can’t explain why a previously healthy young woman died so suddenly.

Damon and Paltrow are members of an ensemble cast that can claim multiple Oscar, Emmy and Tony wins and nominations.

Oscar winner Kate Winslet, portraying a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctor, wades into the thick of the oncoming pandemic. Playing Dr. Erin Mears, the actress does much of the plot’s dangerous lifting. Mears, a courageous, determined young woman, does medical detective work, tracing the virus’ rapidly expanding path. In a film heavy with A-list actors and actresses, Winslet steals the show.

Marion Cotillard, another Oscar winner, parallels Winslet’s U.S. investigation. Co-starring as a doctor from the World Health Organization, she is gets dispatched from Geneva to Hong Kong, ground zero for the virus.

Although Contagion’s alarming subject and storyline are the ultimate stars, there’s time for the good work of Winslet and, albeit less so, Cotillard, as well as Jude Law playing the film’s flashiest character, a San Francisco blogger who sees the virus coming. Laurence Fishburne, in the anchoring role of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deputy director, provides measured contrast to Law’s conspiracy-and hysteria-spreading web star.

As the days move grimly forward and the pandemic, illustrated in red on a global map, spreads, Contagion tracks a world gripped by crisis and panic. It’s an unusually immersive filmgoing experience, no 3-D effects necessary.