From Hong Kong to Chicago and across to London, the world descends into chaos when a lethal virus sweeps the planet in Steven Soderbergh’s thriller “Contagion”, screening at the Venice Film Festival.

“Contact with another person will likely seal your demise. You can’t be courageous, or you’ll die,” said actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays one of the first victims of the killer bug, which leaves riots and hysteria in its wake.

Released in the midst of a real-life banking crisis, with riots across parts of Europe and growing fears of biological terrorism, the film depicts a breakdown in trust across all parts of society that evokes contemporary anxieties.

The Academy Award-winning director said he had been drawn to the idea of showing people “struggling with a real-world problem, especially one with a ticking clock, where the stakes couldn’t be higher.”

Paltrow’s on-screen husband, Matt Damon, watches helplessly as his wife returns from a trip to Hong Kong with flu-like symptoms which quickly worsen — leaving him to protect his 15-year-old daughter alone, as fear grips the world.

“Day Two” is when it all beings, with close-up shots in an airport of hands touching mouths, glasses and doorknobs, waiters sneezing and victims travelling home to fall ill in London, Hong Kong and Minneapolis.

The story’s multiple threads criss cross as the World Health Organisation and US Centres for Disease Control scramble into action, while activist blogger Jude Law sniffs out the story and accuses the authorities of a cover up.

“Steven’s movies don’t leave any fat on the bone. The pace mirrors the progression of the infection itself and how things spiral quickly out of control,” Damon said.

Acts of heroic selflessness in the midst of the pandemic are overshadowed by violence as people fight each other for food rations and bleak scenes where survivors wander garbage-strewn streets and arm themselves against looters.

Based on real scientific research and advice from world-class experts in the field of infectious diseases, the film shows how “a virus could infiltrate the population in staggering numbers,” said producer Michael Shamberg.

In its wake, “the familiar suddenly becomes unfamiliar and you’re afraid to go back into your own house and see your friends.”

Script writer Scott Burns said the idea for the killer epidemic was partly based on research into how the real-life outbreak of SARS in China in 2003 likely developed and spread from Hong Kong’s livestock wet markets.

The hysteria deepens as alternative theories about the truth behind the disease and possible cures spread like wildfire through the internet.

“When things like this happen, whether its a banking scandal or a pandemic, conspiracy theories spread around the whole world — just as fast and as deadly as a virus,” said Burns.

Here’s the reviews:

Todd McCarthy at The Hollywood Reporter: “A shrewd, unsensationalistic, non-visual effects-dependent global disaster melodrama, Contagion creates a credible picture of how the world might react (and, up to a point, has reacted) in the face of a rapidily [sic] spreading mystery disease for which no cure exists.. the fine cast, likely solid critical reaction and undeniable topicality position this as a robust B.O. performer for the early fall season.”

Jason Solomons for the Guardian: “I was shuffling nervously in my seat, edging away from the sniffling man next to me. Nobody shook hands or embraced after this screening… This is a straight-up movie, serious but, crucially, also slightly silly in the knowing Soderbergh style, always aware that it’s a disaster movie, not a documentary.” Grade: 3 out of 5 stars

David Gritten for IndieWire: “The film sometimes feels like a series of public health warnings. Yet it’s memorable. And anyone remotely concerned about the risk of infection in crowded public places may regard Contagion as a thoroughly believable horror movie.”