Imagine something that cannot be seen with the naked eye, yet capable of inflicting the most damage known to humankind. That would be a bacteria- the kind that enters the body and forms a deadly virus that will destroy you from the inside out, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Viruses have affected the human population since the beginning of life on Earth, and it’s a constant battle to keep ourselves healthy to the point that we won’t fall victim to any of their effects. With the coronavirus taking up much of the headlines internationally, let’s take a look at a film that sort of predates the idea of how a viral outbreak could lead to a pandemic.
You’ve more than likely seen, or at least heard of, 2011’s Contagion, a very intense thriller that dealt with such an issue regarding an impending pandemic. But there’s one film that predates this one: 1995’s Outbreak. So, what is this movie about? How does it compare to Contagion? Is this movie still relevant, or even plausible, after twenty-five years?
Outbreak follows the story of an Ebola-like virus called Motaba and its centralized outbreak in a small California town. While the movie primarily focuses on a group of CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases) workers effortlessly trying to contain the spread of the virus while working on a treatment to save the residents, it is nonetheless an intense ride from start to finish.
Featuring an incredible cast that includes Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Kevin Spacey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland, Outbreak was directed by Wolfgang Petersen (the man who made In The Line of Fire and Das Boot). The result is a film that’s expertly directed and tells a story that feels quite scary to ponder. What’s most unique is how it deals with two points of view: the doctors assigned to dealing with the Motaba outbreak and the military deciding what to do, since National Security on containment is an utmost priority. I have to give credit to screenwriters Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool, both of whom did a great job in keeping the audience on the edge of their seats! Here’s a quick summary of what happens.
A viral outbreak occurs in a village during the late 1960s, with the sick showing symptoms of an Ebola-like virus named Motaba. The symptoms are lesions on the skin, blood draining from the eyes and nose, with death comes within several days. The virus is highly contagious but is contained to just one village in Africa. Fast-forward to the present, however, and the virus has found its way to a small town in California where the residents get sicks at an incredible rate, leading to the military shutting down the town and preventing anyone from leaving. Think of it as martial law or a state of emergency.
It’s a race against time to determine where the outbreak started, what caused it, and of course how to stop it from spreading. Every actor in this movie does stellar work and the plot is tightly wound, as if you were reading it in a book. In fact, Outbreak is very similar to the Richard Preston novel The Hot Zone, which was published in 1994. A film adaptation for The Hot Zone was initially planned, but ultimately fell through and Outbreak was made instead. Many years later, The Hot Zone was finally adapted into a miniseries that was released in 2019 on National Geographic to positive praise.
Now, much like Contagion, it would be better if you saw this movie instead of hearing me talk about it, but there’s one great scene in Outbreak that I must mention. J.T. Walsh was given an unofficial credit in the film as the White House Chief of Staff, but during a meeting the late actor delivers a monologue that, in my opinion, is pitch-perfect in its execution but also wisely written. He talks about how the military wants to use a fuel-air bomb on the California town in the event that the disease cannot be contained and goes viral across the United States. A fuel-air bomb (better known as a Thermobaric weapon), for those of you unfamiliar with the device, uses oxygen to create a massive explosion similar to a nuclear bomb, but without the nuclear fallout. It sucks all the oxygen within the blast area and basically eliminates it to create the explosion, something which would kill everyone within the radius. Thus, all the infected would die and the virus would be vaporized completely. This Thermobaric weapon was actually used at the end of Resident Evil 3 Nemesis, for those of you avid gamers.
Now, there are some difference between Outbreak and Contagion, but both deal with potentially real-life scenarios. In fact, when Outbreak was released in 1995, an Ebola outbreak was happening in the country of Zaire, coincidentally where the beginning of this movie takes place!
With the coronavirus spreading across the United States and over a hundred countries, there are people concerned about its effects on a global scale. Sure, washing your hands and taking necessary precautions are always wise, but don’t take a potentially dangerous disease lightly. Both of these aforementioned films deal with diseases that aren’t out of the realm of fiction. Sure, the plots are fictitious, but also scary enough to remind us that these things happen every year and, as a result, there are causalities. It’s nice to see a movie where we get to meet people such people (i.e. CDC officials, epidemiologists, doctors and scientists) who work to solve the crisis that everyone fears. Sure, war has killed millions of people since the dawn of man, but it’s the enemy you can’t see that remains the deadliest of them all.
Outbreak predates Contagion and, while both films have their differences, they share a similar idea that will never get old. Outbreak fits the category of a standard action/thriller, whereas Contagion can be seen as horror film to some but an effective thriller by others. In short, I strongly recommend you watch both. As thrillers go they are both great, but it’s more than just entertainment- it’s a reminder that at any time, an outbreak can occur and, given the right circumstances, can spread into an uncontrollable pandemic capable of that affecting the entire world. Be thankful that we have people working in these field because, without them, we would be at the mercy of Mother Nature herself.