This might be difficult so bear with me, but imagine you are lying on a couch at home, practicing “social distancing,” with the option between writing a paper that has now received its third extension or watching a movie. I was supposed to cover an arts event at school this weekend, but unfortunately, it got canceled, so I found myself in such a predicament, and me being me, I thought, “Netflix is exactly the type of escapism I need.”
So, I took to Netflix, and the very first movie listed, one of the top trending movies at the moment, is the 1995 film “Outbreak.” The premise is exactly what the title suggests: there is an outbreak of a deadly airborne virus in the United States.
Sigh … come on, guys.
“Well,” I thought, “I am a shill for sci-fi action thrillers.” So I watched it, and my verdict? I was thoroughly entertained for two hours, but I believe that it felt by-the-numbers.
Before watching, I had never heard of the film, so I was surprised by the star-studded cast: Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Donald Sutherland. Even Patrick Dempsey played a minor role (“Outbreak” was a decade before his claim to fame as Dr. McDreamy on “Grey’s Anatomy”). Despite the star-studded cast, the writing and direction did not require these talented actors to do much other than to act ill, shout angry military orders at each other or make the occasional quip. Nonetheless, the actors were the strongest asset of the film, because their performances helped me care more about the characters.
The problem with “Outbreak” stems from its writing. It has about as much nuance as, well, an airborne virus with a virtually non-existent incubation period and a 100% mortality rate. For example, the opening shot is the following quote from Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg Ph.D.: “The single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on the planet is the virus.” Really makes you think, huh? In the film’s defense, it did attempt some subtext surrounding utilitarian morality — the question of sacrificing a few to save the majority. However, despite taking a strong anti-utilitarian stance, the film itself felt utilitarian. I’d be surprised if the writing room wasn’t filled with screenwriting textbooks and a drawing of the three-act structure pyramid on a whiteboard because the characters had little (if any) personality beyond what their archetypes and the plot strictly required.
Now, I’m going to make a transition about as subtle as the writing to what most likely made you decide to read this film review. I will say the following once, and only once: DO NOT COMPARE THIS MOVIE TO COVID-19!
All of the comparisons that could be made between the movie’s virus and COVID-19 are superficial: they are both viruses, people are getting sick and scared and crazy things are happening. As I am sitting at home and not at school right now, I will concede that the current pandemic is an emergency scenario. However, the epidemic (not pandemic) in “Outbreak” is a dramatized nightmare scenario — beyond anything we ever have experienced.
If you want to make legitimate comparisons between “Outbreak” and the real world, look no further than one of the opening scenes. The mid-90s experienced an ebola outbreak and was also in the throes of the AIDS crisis, so, to contextualize the severity of the virus, the viewer is taken through levels of clearance for viruses. The fictional virus had a security clearance beyond HIV and Ebola. Moreover, the effects of the virus are similar to that of Ebola, and the virus comes from a capuchin monkey, which draws parallels to how monkeys are thought to be the source of Ebola and HIV.
I will end my review here. The movie was fun to watch but not groundbreaking by any means. However, when I told my mom I would be reviewing “Outbreak” for the Justice, she said she saw it in theaters and freaked out during the scene when a man coughed and spread the virus over an entire movie theater, so I cannot call “Outbreak” forgettable. Take that as you will. Wash your hands and be safe.