Directed by: Wolfgang Petersen
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Kevin Spacey, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Donald Sutherland
How about a nice pandemic panic as a break from all the quakes and twisters? Seeing as Disaster Movie World has now passed the 50 reviews mark, it’s high time to add a new kind of disaster to the roster.
Outbreak is a fine a specimen of this particular topic. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen (Poseidon, The Perfect Storm) and boasting a nice all-star cast, this is a slickly entertaining virus thriller which occasionally manages a rather creepy vibe. Which is not to say that it’s a very subtle piece of work: it is, after all, a disaster film and makes place for speechifying and cartoon villains, before wrapping things up just a little too smoothly to be taken 100% seriously.
A prologue takes us to war-torn Zaire in 1967, where mercenaries at a jungle camp are succumbing to a virulent disease that cause fever, horrible bleedings and death. A team of U.S. Army virologists arrive to investigate, but do not offer help. Instead they bomb the camp, killing everyone in it, in order to contain the outbreak.
Jump to the present, where we meet Colonel Sam Daniels (Hoffman) of the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (sporting the handy acronym USAMRIID). As an outbreak of haemorraghic fever is reported from Africa, Daniels is dispatched to investigate, along with a team including long-time collaborator Maj. Casey Schuler (Spacey) and newcomer Maj. Salt (Gooding). Arriving in Zaire, they find a whole village viped out by the disease. Analyzing biological samples back home in the States, Daniels believes they have discovered an entirely new virus, Motaba.
Only, they haven’t. Daniels’ superior, General Ford (Freeman), realizes that the Motaba is the same virus that caused the 1967 outbreak. He was there, you see. For his own reasons (more of which later), he decides not to tell Daniels any of this, instead assuring Daniels that the virus is unlikely to spread any further, and ordering him to drop the case.
Meanwhile, an entrepreneurial fork-lift driver named Jimbo smuggles a Zairean Capucin monkey out of a holding facility for lab test animals and tries to sell it to a pet shop owner in Cedar Creek, California. Since the monkey is of the wrong gender, the deal is off and Jimbo releases the monkey into the wild — but not before being infected by the Motaba virus carried by the animal. Jimbo spreads the virus to his girlfriend before collapsing. Both are brought to hospital and die.
Jimbo’s case gets the attention of another virologist, Robby Keough, who also happens to be Daniels’ ex-wife. Just as she believes the danger is over, it turns out that the pet shop owner was also infected, and that there’s a big outbreak in Cedar Creek. Robby immediately goes there, and is joined by Daniels and his team, who have heard of Cedar Creek and decides to investigate a possible Motaba connection, in direct violation of general Ford’s orders.
As Cedar Creek is quarantined by Army forces and ravaged by the virus, the scientists fight to find a cure but to no avail. Suddenly, a serum called E-1101 is brought in. As General Ford obviously tries to hide something, Daniels analyses the serum and realizes it’s a cure for Motaba, meaning that the virus isn’t new at all and that Ford knows all about it. Unfortunately, the virus has now mutated, meaning that E-1101 is no longer effective. The only way to make a new antidote would be to find the host animal — that little African monkey set free by Jimbo.
This is where the until now rather metodical and generally plausible medical thriller moves into more absurd action film mode. General Ford and his colleague from the 1967 investigation, the hardliner General McClintock (Sutherland), kept the Motaba virus secret in order to develop a biological weapon. Now McClintock convinces the president that the only way to stop the virus from spreading across the United States is to give Cedar Creek the Zaire treatment: bomb the town and everyone in it. With only hours to go before the drop, Daniels and Salt jump in a helicopter and go on the hunt for the host animal. Amazingly, they manage to find the monkey, dodge McClintock’s pursuing attack helicopters, develop and cook up gallons of serum, play airborne chicken with the bomber plane and cure everybody in town in just a few hours — all while cracking a few jokes along the way.
It may sound like the film breaks up into two parts, and it kind of does, but it still works very well overall. The more subdued and occasionally creepy first half does a good job of showing how the virus spreads through a series of mundane events and coincidences, the siege-like quarantine imposed on Cedar Creek comes with an apocalyptic atmosphere (though parts of the scenario are decidedly overblown), and the very real pandemic scares during recent years give the whole thing a certain eerie resonance. Dustin Hoffman does a good job in the lead role and Rene Russo is likeable, though the divorce storyline involving her and Hoffman is pure cliché, saved primarily by competent acting. Kevin Spacey has a couple of funny moments, while Cuba Gooding Jr., comes off as rather bland.
As the movie shifts gears and revs up the action, credibility plummets. You’d think the Motaba virus was bad enough, but the screenwriters seem to have felt that a traditional bad guy was also needed, thus wrote in the evil General McClintock who is portrayed by Donald Sutherland in a way that makes you think of your average Nazi officer. He is, on the other hand, contrasted by the increasingly uneasy General Ford, played very well by Morgan Freeman. Dumb though it may be, this latter part of the film is still fun to watch — the pace is good and it is all pretty entertaining. Just don’t dwell too long on the implausibilities of the plot.
Overall, Outbreak is a disaster film well worth watching for its good looks, nice cast and a largely engaging and atmospheric story.