Jennifer Ehle is shown in a scene from the film "Contagion." 

Warner Bros. Pictures

I'm not making this up: I had a coughing fit during "Contagion."

Luckily, I was sitting at the very back of the theater, so I was less likely (I hope) to add to the tension unfolding on the screen. Director Stephen Soderbergh creates a film that's closeasthis to reality. Only a hair's breadth separates science fact from science fiction.

There's a little of "Outbreak" and a bit of "The Trigger Effect" here. Still, this is unique and stands on its own as a kind of medical thriller that's a race against time to save humanity from an unknown threat.

The first person who becomes ill is Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), who, as Patient Zero, has spread the disease to nearly everyone with whom she came in contact on a recent business trip. She feels ill when she comes home, but she doesn't know how sick she truly is until she has a seizure with her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) looking on.

Suddenly, Mitch finds himself quarantined. And now Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is calling in other experts so that what could become a pandemic can be stopped as quickly as possible. Among Cheever's colleagues is Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), who travels to Minneapolis to provide field reports.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle, "The King's Speech") tries to find a vaccine while Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard, "La Vie en Rose") is dispatched to Hong Kong, where the disease may have originated.

Day by day, we watch as people become terrified of catching whatever is killing vast numbers of the population in many cities, and we see society itself begin to break down as martial law becomes the only option for any kind of control. We see the importance of careful public relations planning and also how empowered a blogger (Jude Law) - who claims to have found a cure - can become.

This is a well-directed, thought-provoking picture with a smart script. Part of its powerful impact could be attributed to its release date. Ten years ago, the United States and, indeed, the world suddenly began to cope with the aftermath of a threat few had imagined. With that in mind, it's impossible to see this film and wonder what kinds of dangers could lie ahead.