One thing in Outbreak’s favour: it’s unashamedly Hollywood. Contagion, might fool the unwitting movie peruser into believing it’s based on real, hard science, but Outbreak is so intent on throwing the kitchen sink of all-star moviemaking tics and tropes into the mix that it’s hard to take seriously. Even as it’s flourishing an Ebola-esque virus fully equipped to make you queasy (it’s interesting that Wolfgang Peterson is much less reticent that Steven Soderbergh in respect of the horror elements, even though this is a much bigger production. Perhaps because Peterson’s a much more imaginative director). Outbreak isn’t a good movie by any stretch, but at least it’s having a bit of fun with its clichés.
Sam: Shall I cough on you, George?
I well remember the lead in to Outbreak’s release, because it was a case of two competing movies with the same subject matter. Until, that is, its competitor, which actually had the edge in terms of development time and “legitimacy”, fell apart. The origins of both productions were Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, charting the 1989 Ebola outbreak, but if you’re looking for culprits there… Well, the proximity of the US military to such manifestations of a previously unknown disease is notable. But blame nature, if it fits your worldview better. And talking of worldviews, it seems Preston’s novel, arriving helpfully when it did, “continued to fuel the emerging diseases campaign”. Don’t take my word for it, Wiki says so. Some would call that propaganda. The “filovirus” bogeyman is, after all, singularly responsible for instilling virus fear like no other, owing to its reported nastiness.
Crisis in the Hot Zone was set to star Robert Redford and Jodie Foster, directed by Sir Ridders (then just plain Ridders). For me, masquerading under the delusion that I might one day see a Ridley Scott movie of the standard of Alien or Blade Runner again, this was something to look forward to. Something to root for. As Linda Obst recounts “We… had the better package and we had the better script”. Adding insult to injury, that dastardly Peterson tried to poach Redford (he had to settle for his diminutive All the President’s Men co-star).
I don’t doubt that, with such star wattage on board, Crisis in the Hot Zone would have been very Hollywood in its own way – as in, burdened by egregious character arcs – but it was nevertheless expressly trading under the “based on a true story” banner. As noted, Outbreak features its own Ebola-like virus. It’s one that even ends in an “a”. Called Motaba, it causes the expected mushy symptoms – a Preston invention that has caught on, joining a veritable throng of inventions in the field – and subsequent death. It’s also, like Ebola, found in the African jungle. Outbreak doesn’t just stick to treating this infection, though. It boasts a cartload of other paraphernalia, or manure, to spread on top. Some of which is more effective – or should that just be less ineffective – than others.
Dr Iwabi: He believes that the gods were woken from their sleep by the men cutting down the trees, where no man should be. And the gods got angry. This… is a punishment.
Chief among these is the conspiracy plotline ushered in with the prologue set in 1967, whereby young Donald Sutherland (Major General McClintock) and young Morgan Freeman (Brigadier General Ford) oversee the torching of an army camp infected with Motaba. Now, it’s quite evident from the narrative that Motaba has been uncovered by nature. Indeed, the creed recited by the local medicine man is explicitly designed to reinforce the official story, to make sure we don’t doubt its authenticity. The underlying case, though, is of a deadly infection surfacing amid a company of US soldiers, a deadly infection that is preserved by the military – solitary bad eggs in the ranks, naturally – as a bioweapon. It isn’t difficult to read between the cause-and-effect lines here, which don’t involve a simian scapegoat. I should stress that by this, I don’t mean to suggest screenwriters Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool were consciously placing the truth in plain sight, but rather that the correlatives bear a marked resemblance to those in the real world.
McClintock: We are at war, Billy. Everybody is at war.
Outbreak doesn’t furnish a bioengineered “virus” – we’ll have to wait for The X-Files or Resident Evil for that – but we do have the virus stock-in-trade used to explain all sorts of allopathic attitudes. Namely, that it has mutated. And most of all, its trump card, that it has mutated in such a manner as to become airborne. Nowhere is safe! This elicits the one roundly esteemed sequence in the movie – whose reception was generally less than overwhelmingly positive, just as box office was decent but unspectacular – as Motaba becomes airborne in a crowded cinema. With a sure flourish, Peterson follows the virus’ path from its victim’s expellant, through the air and into other unsuspecting popcorn-munching patrons (leading to an unintentionally telling line about how we’re fed our facts: “Apparently, they all got it in a movie theatre”).
Outbreak announces its authenticity via a quote from Joshua Lederberg Phd (see, you’re buying it already): “The single biggest threat to man’s continued domination of the planet is the virus”. Lederberg, lest we get carried away with feting the man’s “insight” was a flagrant eugenicist – sorry, “euphenicist” – and advocate for cloning and genetic engineering to “improve” humans (basically, he’s your classic transhumanist). Anyone who moans that eugenics has been unfairly maligned, “a negatively viewed term” is immediately inviting opprobrium. Or a Nobel Prize. Take your pick: “He expected that euphenics would be more effective than traditional eugenic practices like sexual sterilisation, but he intended for the goals to be the same”.
So when Lederberg warns of the threat of the virus, one might propose he is really issuing a code, that this virus threat – a product of Pasteur-promoted scientific theory – will inevitably produce vaccines against it, and those vaccines themselves may be a – targeted, of course – threat to man’s continued domination of the planet.
There’s so much you can achieve with them, after all, particularly as eugenicist, or euphenicist. Such as forced sterilisation. Or outright culling. Lederberg was, after all, coming to the fore at a time when he was forced to acknowledge traditional – explicit – language would not win widespread approval outside his peer group, so what better way to disguise his true beliefs than rebranding them? When an esteemed establishment scientist voices concerns about “the biological impact of space exploration” (see also The Andromeda Strain), ten to one there’s something’s fishy about them. That’s even before you realise he was the president of the Rockefeller University (you know, JD and his allopathic, oil-based utopia).
Ford: We have to defend ourselves against the other maniacs who are developing biological weapons.
But back to the plot. Outbreak suffers the malaise of most modern blockbusters in that it never knows when it has enough. Which inevitably means that, for all the entertainment value of individual parts and performances, it eventually becomes a chore. But even during the third act heroics – Dustin doing manly things takes some swallowing, almost as much believing he’s both a colonel and a virologist – there are occasional memorable vignettes.
Besides the military machinations, we have Sam Daniels (Hoffman) going through a divorce from Dr Roberta Keough (Rene Russo during peak romantic interest period: Mel, Clint, Costner, Travolta, Pierce… Dustin). We have Patrick Dempsey, looking as if he’s escaped from The Lost Boys, as an animal testing lab guy trying to sell the infected monkey (those damn apes!) and getting infected himself (there’s a great moment on a plane with a wayward child and an infected cookie… Peterson doesn’t go there, alas). There’s martial law in Cedar Creek, where the outbreak occurs and where Operation Clean Sweep is planned, in order to contain the virus and (nefariously) hide its existence. JT Walsh is also wheeled on for a classic piece of scene stealing as the White House Chief of Staff, laying out the consequences of making a bad decision.
Then there are the infected. Beside Dempsey’s Jimbo Scott collapsing after his girlfriend greets him at the airport and gratuitously tongues him, pet-store owner Rudy Alvarez (Daniel Chodos) topples through his fish tank. A hospital technician gets all sick at the cinema and Peterson is so over-the-top with the point of view and patrons’ recoiling responses that it’s unintentionally funny. The seriousness of events is continually underlined by hyperbole, whereby “It looks like a bomb went off inside” (Dempsey) and “The whole damn town’s infected!”
And because there have to be consequences, someone has to die and someone has to be on death’s door. The former would be Kevin Spacey (as Lieutenant Colonel Schuler) in his game-changing year, back when everyone aside from Anthony Rapp wanted to work with him (I know, a quarter of a century changes a lot). He’s already identifiably pigeonholed as pithy and acidic in sense of humour (gleefully going into gory detail of Ebola with new man Cuba Gooding Jr’s Major Salt), but he also gets to show off his chops in his death scene (“I’m so scared”). This means death’s door falls to Russo’s Keough, spurring Sam’s action-man heroics.
Sam: A serious punch for a very serious nose.
This heroism involves manipulating a small child into putting herself within biting/scratching/mauling distance of the infected monkey, showing us what a good utilitarian egg Sam is. It’s actually a very strong sequence, perhaps the best in the picture, but it comes in the middle a slew of fairly stand-issue helicopter pursuit dramatics that seriously underwhelm the third act. Although – take note, all those serving their country, or Hippocratic oath – Outbreak does at least conclude with a paean not to genocide a population just so as to follow orders. Which obviously, would not happen in real life.
McClintock: You hope to make general one day?
Briggs: Yes, sir.
McClintock: Well, you wont.
Dustin is watchable, but this kind of role isn’t his forte. Both Freeman and Sutherland are exactly as you’d expect (authoritative and evil respectively). Cuba Gooding Jr is precisely as unfulfilled as ever he was when he wasn’t in Boyz n the Hood or Jerry Maguire. If the outbreak itself is daft, it’s notable that it brings to mind something far more disturbing than a fictional epidemic. For it’s an inescapable realisation that a notable selection of the principle cast have gone on to various degrees of #MeToo approbation. One might even call it… an outbreak (Spacey, Hoffman, Gooding Jr, Freeman).
Sam: General, with all due respect, fuck you, sir.
Outbreak has taken a bit of a beating for being less plausible than Contagion (the implication being the erroneous one that Contagion is plausible in anything other than a predictive programming sense of the word). Certainly, the magical way in which Motaba is isolated and photographed is a turn up for the books. Mainly though, it suffers from typical blockbuster bloat. Peterson’s Hollywood track record was patchy in the extreme, however intermittently popular his movies were. I see that, like Paul Verhoeven, he has now returned to Europe to make movies. If nothing else, though, the plandemic has ensured Outbreak is one of his most seen pictures. That should be taken entirely as what it is: not a compliment.