Friday March 10, 1995
"Outbreak," starring Dustin Hoffman encased in a germ-free suit and helmet, is the kind of movie that's usually described as "visceral." It sure ain't "cerebral." Despite a lot of high-tech gizmology and oodles of data about hemorrhagic fevers and viral strains, it's basically a so-spreadable-it's-incredible creeping glop movie. It's a B-movie with A-accouterments.
Even though "Outbreak" is grounded in some very real global fears about viral crises-in-waiting, it quickly mutates into an action-adventure wingding that's about as plausible as "True Lies." Which is probably just as well. If the film were truly effective it might set off a nationwide panic--a "War of the Worlds" for the '90s, with microbes instead of Martians.
The mystery virus--nicknamed "Motaba"--that is the real star of the film first turns up in 1967 in a mercenary camp in Africa. Next thing you know the village and all its expiring inhabitants are mysteriously nuked. Cut to the present: Motaba is back and Zaire's got it. Col. Sam Daniels, M.D. (Dustin Hoffman), is sent into the African rain forest to check out the damage by Gen. Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman), his longtime friend and commanding officer at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases. Sealed off in his germ-free jumpsuit, Sam surveys a village littered with corpses, liquefied organs, gaping mouths. His associate, Maj. Salt (Cuba Gooding Jr.), is a little green. He throws up in his helmet, pulls it off his head and survives--which proves the virus isn't airborne. Yet.
One of the perverse enjoyments of "Outbreak" is watching Hoffman, who is notorious for inhabiting characters bollixed by the blips of indecision, playing a no-nonsense action hero. Hoffman is such a cerebral actor that his new damn-the-torpedoes style has an almost parodistic edge. Hoffman appears to be winking at us, as if to say, "And you thought maybe I couldn't make a blow-'em-up movie?" (Perhaps he and Meryl Streep will share a river raft on their next outing.) Sam gets to shout down the top brass, drop onto a moving freighter from a helicopter blinded by fog, stand up to AWACS and fighter choppers. Then his ex-wife, Robby (Rene Russo)--she works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention--comes down with the virus after it spreads to sleepy Cedar Creek, Calif. Sam and Robby, recently splitsville, still cast lingering looks of smoldering affection at each other. So it's inevitable Sam should brave airborne environments to save her. He removes his headgear at her bedside. Love means never having to keep your helmet on.
Director Wolfgang ("In the Line of Fire") Petersen, working from a script by Lawrence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool, likes to juice his movies with a barrage of bad guys. In "Outbreak," he's somewhat at a disadvantage because his chief meanie, Donald Sutherland's Gen. Donald McClintock, is no match for Motaba. McClintock has a simple solution to everything: When in doubt, nuke. His new baby is Operation Clean Sweep, where he plans to do to Cedar Creek what he did to the rain forest. But the killer virus is something else again. As Sam says, "It's a billionth of our size . . . and it's * beating us."
"Outbreak" has its eco-advocacy side: Messing with the rain forest unleashes plagues. The actual transmission of the virus from Africa to Cedar Creek is well-handled. (The film could use more scenes of scientific detective work.) We see how a single infected monkey, hijacked and sold to a pet store, then released into the wilds of Northern California after nibbling and regurgitating on a host of humans, can quickly turn the planet into a hot zone. But the preposterousness of the plot--the hair-raising rescues and daredevil standoffs--tends to turn everything, even the very real dangers of rogue viruses, into sci-fi. And this may be intentional.
It's possible to view "Outbreak" as a kind of * faux thriller about AIDS. Infected blood is exchanged, people are accidentally stuck with infected needles. And, in true melodramatic fashion, "Outbreak" posits a comprehensible, targetable enemy--the military. A rogue officer is the only thing standing between us and health. Of course, an antiviral serum in this movie can be concocted and mass-produced in about the time it takes to cook a Pop-Tart.
"Outbreak" plugs into mass audience fears about AIDS and then exoticizes those fears and disposes of them. It's preposterousness with a mission: the '90s equivalent of the 1956 "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," where the virus was a creeping conformity that turned everybody into pod people. You can always count on Hollywood to capitalize on the infectious.
Outbreak, 1995. R, for strong language. A Warner Bros. release of an Arnold Kopelson production in association with Punch Productions. Director Wolfgang Petersen. Producers Kopelson, Petersen, Gail Katz. Executive producers Duncan Henderson, Anne Kopelson. Screenplay by Laurence Dworet, Robert Roy Pool. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Editor Stephen Rivkin. Costumes Erica Phillips. Music James Newton Howard. Production design William Sandell. Set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg. Running time:2 hours, 7 minutes. Dustin Hoffman as Sam Daniels. Rene Russo as Robby Keough. Morgan Freeman as Gen. Billy Ford. Kevin Spacey as Casey Schuler.