OUTBREAK (1995) **. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Produced by Arnold Kopelson, Mr. Petersen, Gail Katz. Written by Laurence Dworet, Robert Roy Pool. Photography, Michael Ballhaus. Production design, William Sandell. Editing, Neil Travis, Lynzee Klingman, William Hoy. Music, James Newton Howard. Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Patrick Dempsey, Donald Sutherland, Kevin Spacey. A Warners release. 125 min. Rated R. (vivid symptoms of disease)
It all started with a chilling 1992 New Yorker magazine article by Richard Preston, who later turned it into a best-selling book,"The Hot Zone." Another book, Laurie Garrett's "The Coming Plague," also dealt with killer viruses. Immediately the movie industry jumped in with two projects, "Crisis in the Hot Zone" (abandoned) and "Outbreak."
The books are studies of unseen enemies that could wipe out life on earth. With the tragic reality of AIDS on everybody's mind, a virus pandemic is horror with a capital H so big that it dwarfs King Kong, the Empire State Building , monsters, vampires, zombies, sharks, slashers, vicious extraterrestrials or supernatural terror. Those fright-makers work on shock effects, but there's nothing scarier than the unknown and the unseen, such as viruses.
"Outbreak" opens in 1967 Zaire, where an entire village, plus mercenaries, have been atrociously annihilated by a bug. Cut to the present day. A USAMRIID team (U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases) led by Colonel Sam Daniels, M.D. (Hoffman) is sent to Africa's Motaba River Valley to investigate an incredibly fast and murderous virus that Daniels names Motaba.
Motaba is imported to the U.S. by an illegal, undocumented alien, a very cute monkey who carries it. A nasty chain of events climaxes with the small town of Cedar Creek becoming infected. The government wants to save the rest of America by sequestering the population and bombing the whole place dead. Colonel Daniels frantically tries to find the antidote and save Cedar Creek. He runs into military opposition, secrets and conspiracies Not to worry. This is not a Doomsday movie like the touching "On the Beach" or the black satire "Dr. Strangelove."
The first part is impressive and tense. You may be conscious that this is a big bucks, polished Hollywood production, but it still holds you in its grip. Later though, as the film shifts into a lavish techno-thriller action-suspenser, its Babylon-by-the-Sea origins become inescapable.
Director Wolfgang Petersen made five fine features in his native Germany, including an obsessive chess story, "Black and White Like Day and Night" which is not yet on video. His fourth film, the pacifist "Das Boot," set during World War II, is the best of all submarine pictures. Its international success led Petersen to Hollywood and to ho-hum films: "The Neverending Story," "Enemy Mine, " and "Shattered." He bounced back with "In The Line Of Fire."
In "Outbreak" Petersen has become much too Hollywoodized. Mostly in the second part he and the writers regurgitate by-the-book movie-movie conventions, silliness and cliches. Here are samples that will not give away too much of the plot.
Colonel Daniels has an ex-wife, played by Rene Russo. She is also an epidemiologist. She is also statuesque. She is also beautiful by some standards.
Why those two divorced is not convincingly stated. Perhaps because she is the only woman on earth to spell Rene with a single "e"? The ex-couple are antagonistic but, of course, they are still in love, will cooperate and be reunited by the Motaba crisis.They love their dogs, one called Lewis. Is the other Clark? Mercifully, you never find out.
Daniels is seconded by stalwart, able, wisecracking Majors Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Kevin Spacey. Hollywoodianly, one or more of the hero's friends must die. Will this happen here?
Banter among the military scientists: "I hate this bug. It's one billionth our size and it's killing us." "You've got to admire its simplicity." "What do you want, take it to dinner?' "No, kill it."
Cedar Creek is a white-picket town in, inevitably, California. Does anything happen in other states?
Speech is authoritative and authoritarian by the higher ups, including Bad Guy General Donald Sutherland. Decisions at a White House emergency meeting are so theatrically delivered that you are watching rehearsed actors rather than real people. The dialogue often uses artificially low tones. Scientific conclusions are reached amazingly fast and spoken with rat-tat-tat speed. Confrontations and military persons disobeying orders are by the numbers.
The music is good but it follows the cliche of ominous drum beats when tension mounts.
The belle must be saved by the bell and never mind plot-holes.
Worse yet is the inclusion of heroic action sequences, especially a helicopter chased by other copters. Would you believe that one of Colonel Sam's medical pals is also an ace combat pilot capable of daredevil stunts ?
The film's look, however--with photography by Michael Ballhaus and fine production design-- is beyond reproach. Hawaii's tropical island of Kauai makes a convincing African rain forest. Among the most beautiful shots are those of two dark Army helicopters chasing a white TV-station helicopter, and later going after two trucks of Cedar Creek escapees. A hospital looks like an extermination camp. There's more.
Except for Rene Russo, whom I find to be an off-putting, limited performer, the actors are all competent, albeit unmemorable. Among them, two black officers have major roles, Gooding as Sam's subaltern, Freeman as his superior. Racial equality comes through naturally, without straining for political correctness.
The specter of bio-disasters (and related biogical and chemical warfare) is no joke. By a macabre coincidence, on the heels of "Outbreak"'s release came the terrorist poison gas attack in Japan. The film, tarted up as it is with a-bit-of-everything gimmickry, keeps diluting its potential impact. It still remains quite watchable, but what should have shaken us to our foundations becomes mere, forgettable "entertainment" well before the movie is over.