As the majority of Americans are working from home or laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, movies and shows about plagues, disasters, and the apocalypse have been soaring to the top of Netflix’s daily most-watched list.
I decided to revisit and review Outbreak, a movie I remember seeing in middle school when we discussed viruses in science class. I didn’t think it was a good movie even then, and it has aged for the worse.
The main reason is that the film takes place in a version of our world that I simply cannot suspend my disbelief to get into. Outbreak follows Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) and Roberta “Robby” Keough (Rene Russo), a couple going through a divorce, and who work as scientists in the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
In addition to the divorce, Robby has gotten a job at the Centers for Disease Control and will be moving out of town.
Just on the basic level of screenwriting, the introductory scenes are cringeworthy. As Sam and Robby go into the lab on her final day with the army, Sam asks, “Is today your last day?” to which Robby replies, simply, “yes.”
That is the whole conversation of this scene. Sure, they are in an awkward position being forced to work together while going through a divorce, but it’s not exactly the kind of subtle, dramatized exposition that is considered screenwriting 101.
Meanwhile, a capuchin monkey that is carrying the virus known as Motaba is illegally smuggled into the country for research testing (in the idyllic coastal town of Cross Creek, California) and is then, in turn, smuggled out of the lab by Jimbo (Patrick Demsey) who plans to sell him on the black market.
Jimbo gets infected, of course, before selling the monkey to a pet shop, whose owner is also infected. Then, Jimbo flies across the country to see his girlfriend in Boston.
Then, a lab technician testing the pet shop owner’s blood is infected. Then, the lab technician goes to a movie. And so, the transmission of the disease begins.
As the scientists work to combat Motaba, searching for a cure while simultaneously trying to locate the host monkey whose blood will contain antibodies, the plot becomes increasingly about the nefarious actions of the US Army to keep Motaba under wraps, and it is these escalations that make the movie ludicrous.
Let’s back up. The film opens with one of the (unintentionally) funniest cold opens I’ve ever seen. 30 years ago, the US military goes into a village in the Congo where an outbreak of Motaba has occurred. They survey the village and the local doctors brief them on the situation.
The American soldiers take a sample of the virus and depart under the auspices of planning to find a cure. The villagers wave goodbye to the army helicopter as they drop what they think are supplies, only to discover that the package is a bomb.
The village explodes and the opening credits roll. I let out a combination scream-laugh that the filmmakers certainly did not intend. I had to rewind it and watch it again before I let myself continue.
By the time this element came back into play, I had forgotten all about it. The army has kept a sample of Motaba in case they ever need it for biological warfare–it is a 100% lethal illness that has no cure.
Then, the absurdity sets in when General McClintock (Donald Sutherland), who was one of the soldiers in the Congo cold open, enacts a plan to kill everyone who has been infected instead of finding a cure. That way, their perfect incurable biological weapon remains intact should they ever require its use.
The military escalation in the plot allows Sam to play action hero (Hoffman was 57 or so when the film was released), especially once Robby catches the disease herself and he is motivated to save her. Yet without this plot development, there would have been plenty of action to be mined.
The army still could have rounded up the people who are ill, but kept them isolated, and that would have provided the visual spectacle required of a film of this scale. The search for the monkey would have been plenty of plot to keep the engine driving forward.
But no, Outbreak veers into unbelievable maximalism instead. The amount of physical ground that Sam and Major Salt (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) cover, first by traveling across the country and into the Pacific Ocean, and then across California to track down the monkey, certainly could not have happened in the brief time span that it takes in the film. And yet, they do, and all is saved in the end.
Despite the military insanity in Outbreak, it is, unfortunately, given our own real-world pandemic, an interesting angle to explore: the US government has an agenda that is at cross purposes with the public good.
In the real world, we are starting to see members of the current presidential administration, Congress, and the conservative media machine discuss weighing the economy against lives, literally calculating the cost of lives and how many we can bargain to make sure the precious markets are saved.
But, I digress. Outbreak, for all its many flaws, is a fun watch if you don’t think about it too hard. It passes the time, of which, it feels like we have an infinite amount lately.
The fact that the plot is largely divorced from reality makes it an easy escape from our current worldwide dilemma. You can turn your brain off for two hours and enjoy a much more cartoonish outbreak than the one on the news.