Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 4, 2009)
Every few years, some disease emerges that gets built up as the official End of the World. Just a few years, SARS was supposed to kill us all before breakfast and eliminate the Martians by lunch. Instead, it disappeared without much of a trace.
SARS reminded us how vulnerable we are to such disorders, though, and that’s a topic examined in 1995’s Outbreak. A preface introduces to a vicious virus that leads to the obliteration of an African village in 1967. Fast-forward 28 years, and the same disease slaughters another location in Zaire. The team led by the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases’ Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) inspects the site, and Sam believes the virus will soon threaten the US.
And he’s right. A monkey infected with a vicious virus gets shipped to the US and ends up in a northern California pet shop. The primate eventually gets released into the wild, but not before she infects a few folks who came into contact with her.
So there’s your outbreak! The disease quickly works its way into the community, and this leads to Sam’s involvement. He takes his team to NoCal to deal with the virus and attempt to prevent its spread around the world.
In an online forum I frequent, a thread discussed “the worst movie you’ve ever seen”. A debate arose about whether the worst film you’ve seen automatically is the same as your least favorite. Some felt that the two go hand in hand, but I disagree. I can respect a flick and not like it, and I can also enjoy a movie I know isn’t very good.
That’s the category into which Outbreak falls. To be honest, it’s a pretty absurd movie. It takes a chilling premise and turns it into goofy popcorn fodder. The flick boasts so many absurd scenes that it threatens to become comedic.
For example, the story goes to silly extremes to spread the virus. Wouldn’t Jimbo think “man, I’m really sick – maybe I shouldn’t tongue my girlfriend”? Wouldn’t Henry want to cover his mouth instead of hacking all over the other movie theater patrons? I especially love the shot in which he nearly hurls all over the concession stand attendant.
And then there’s the Evil Military Subplot. I won’t spill too many beans, as I prefer to avoid spoilers, but the movie goes down a ridiculous path to add drama to the climax. None of it makes a lick of sense, and it’s clear the choices exist simply to provide potential action and adventure.
The Sophisticated Movie Critic in me recognizes that Outbreak is absurd and cheesy, but dammit, I enjoy it anyway. The film stretches credulity at almost all times, so much so that it nearly subverts its goals. Nonetheless, director Wolfgang Petersen knows how to pace a movie and make it zing, so those factors create an exciting piece of work.
Viruses don’t seem like logical subjects for action flicks, but Petersen is able to bring out the slam-bang well. Those set pieces become the movie’s best moments, as they excite us despite their inherent lack of logic. Petersen peppers the film with enough of these pieces to allow us to slog through the sillier bits.
The presence of a strong cast certainly helps. Via Hoffman, Kevin Spacey, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Morgan Freeman, we find four Oscar winners here (though only Hoffman had captured a trophy when Outbreak hit the screens). In addition, we find established talents like Rene Russon and Donald Sutherland. This is a top-notch set of actors and a much better crew than one would expect for such popcorn-munching cheese.
Not that any of them break a sweat. They get stuck with terrible dialogue – I wince when Spacey’s forced to utter “I hate this bug!” – and one-dimensional characters. For reasons unknown, the writers make Sam and Russo’s character Robby recently divorced former co-workers. Why? I suppose they think this will add pathos and drama, but it seems unnecessary. The relationship itself is fine, but the elements connected to their split bring nothing to the table.
While none of the actors can make their characters three-dimensional, they do add credibility to the project. When we see stars like Hoffman and Freeman, we automatically accept the story as more believable than it probably deserves. The actors may not contribute great performances, but they still offer intangibles that benefit the flick.
Objectively, Outbreak is a pretty terrible movie. It goes down predictable paths enlivened mainly by there absurdity. Nonetheless, the film provides enough brainless entertainment to overcome most of its weaknesses. You won’t respect yourself afterwards, but you’ll enjoy this goofy popcorn flick.