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Outbreak •••

Movie Greg Scott



Scott, our next pandemic movie is 1995’s Outbreak. Do you care to break out your pen and review this with me?

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, I’m ready for a breakout. Let’s do this.

The film opens in 1967 the African jungle of Algiers, US Army officers uncover a virus named Motaba. Rather than rescue the soldiers and medical staff, the officers take blood samples and bomb the site out of existence.

We flash forward some thirty years later where we meet virologist Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman). He’s on his way to Zaire to investigate an outbreak of a novel virus. Daniels is concerned the virus will spread off the continent – but he’s ignored by his superiors (who were the same guys from the 1967 prologue).

Daniels’ fears are realized when a smuggler sneaks a monkey out of Zaire to sell on the black market in the US. The monkey infects the smuggler, who infects his girlfriend, and the disease is off and running. Meanwhile, Daniels’ team works furiously to trace the virus and runs up against a coverup engineered by his boss Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman). They discover that the military knew about the virus 3 decades earlier and kept it under wraps in the hopes of using it as a biological weapon.

Scott, Outbreak has some similarities with The Andromeda Strain which we reviewed a couple weeks ago. It seems the military is toying with dangerous viruses to weaponize them. We again have a team of dedicated scientists who are in moral outrage over the military’s insensitivity to the safety of the public in order to keep the project under wraps. But that’s where the similarity ends.

There are a number of classic science fiction / horror stereotypes in this film – none of them good. While we have a fairly strong female presence in Rene Russo’s Dr. Keough, she eventually pricks her finger and succumbs to the virus. Now it’s up to Hoffman’s Dr. Daniels to solve the case before she dies. This is the classic damsel in distress trope.

There’s also Cuba Gooding Jr. as Major Salt. This is his first time in the field. He’s never seen death up close. And when he does, his eyes go wide and he runs screaming into the jungle. And when the plot needs a master helicopter pilot, he becomes that too.

Then there’s the general trying to keep everything quiet (General Failure trope). And Morgan Freeman is the conscience of everyone. And Kevin Spacey has no other purpose but to be the best friend who dies at the three-quarters mark – because someone must.

Outbreak is a forgettable film in almost every respect. But it does follow many of the paths the world has undergone during COVID-19. There is a team of scientists looking to find a cure. And an investigation to discover “patient zero” so that a cure can be found. And there are politicians (well, mostly military elite) who want to keep everything quiet and not erupt a panic.

Overall, I give this film just 2 out of 5 Reels. Dustin Hoffman misses the mark as the tough military doctor with a soft underbelly. I give him just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

Outbreak is quite possibly my favorite among all the pandemic films. This movie triggered all sorts of nostalgia for me, boasting a cool array of iconic 1990s actors such as Morgan Freeman, Renee Russo, Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. The uncontrollable disease this time is an Ebola-like infection that is fast-acting and 100% lethal. It’s also transmitted via aerosol spray, much like COVID-19, so this virus definitely had my attention.

Before launching into my review of Outbreak, let’s acknowledge that there seem to be two ways that the diseases in all these pandemic stories deviate from COVID-19. For one thing, all four infections are far deadlier than COVID-19. And second, the scientists in these four movies are able to cure the infections in much less time than it’s going to take to cure COVID-19. So we have fictionalized extremes and a too-good-to-be-true resolution. If only real life were so easy.

What gives Outbreak some texture and depth are two running subplots involving a rocky romance between our two lead doctors Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) and Robby Keough (Renee Russo), and a coverup engineered by army generals Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman) and Donald McClintock (Donald Sutherland). So we have tension from three sources — the infection itself, and these two subplots. I enjoyed the balance among these plotlines.

A fair criticism of Outbreak is that it drips with cheese and, as you’ve mentioned, Greg, it delivers several standard movie tropes that are too on-the-nose. Yes, it is all-too predictable that Sam and Robby will get back together, and yes, it’s fairly obvious that Ford will eventually do the right thing and betray McClintock. But I didn’t care. Sam demonstrates some powerful heroism by defying orders to do the right thing, and Ford gives us some satisfying redemption by playing the henchman who eventually turns against his evil villain overlord.

Despite suffering from predictability and unintentional campiness, Outbreak was fun and satisfying to watch. I award it 4 Reels out of 5, and on the strength of Dustin Hoffman’s sometimes overly dramatic performance I give Sam’s heroism 4 Hero points out of 5.

Movie Greg Scott

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