Movie Review: Outbreak


A monkey illegally imported into America brings with her a deadly virus.


Wolfgang Petersen, 1995

Military virologist Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) is deep in the study of the highly dangerous Motaba virus. Due to its virulent nature, Daniels urges his boss, Brigadier General William Ford (Morgan Freeman), to inform the public, but Ford claims the virus is contained. In the meantime, a monkey named Betsy is illegally smuggled into America. Her smuggler Jimbo (Patrick Dempsey), his girlfriend, and the pet shop owner he tried to sell her to all die – but not before Betsy is released into the wild, potentially spreading the disease further. CDC scientist Dr. Roberta Keough (Rene Russo) is sent to investigate the deaths. She and her ex-husband Daniels eventually come together as they discover they’re investigating two outbreaks of the same virus – one of which has infected an entire small town. The military considers taking extreme measures to contain the rapidly spreading virus…


I caught this on TV and decided to watch it based on the quality of the cast. The quality of this film does not reflect the quality of its cast. It’s an increasingly ludicrous and hysterical tale of biological terror that by the time its preachy, stupidly improbable climax comes around, is either unwatchable or hilarious. Your mileage may vary. I let out a number of incredulous laughs at the helicopter antics performed by our brave hero’s daring sidekick (played loudly by Cuba Gooding Jr) during the finale, but none of that beat the soapy, saccharine dialogue between Doctors Daniels and Keough. Russo and Hoffman have subzero chemistry, which is a shame, because Rene Russo is probably the best thing in this movie. Her character is genuinely likeable, and you can’t help but feel for her when she has to deal with Hoffman’s ridiculous take on the irritating Daniels. Sam Daniels is simultaneously righteous and infuriating, to the point where you want him to lose just for the pleasure of seeing his smug little expression wiped off his face, regardless of the death toll. The “twist” involving the Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey characters is telegraphed basically from the start of the film, so much so that its dramatic reveal is more funny than clever.

There are interesting moral quandaries that could be at play in this film. Weirdly, it made me think of this year’s Eye in the Sky, which in many ways was this film’s mirror universe twin. It, too, has good actors involved in a complicated question of security in which the moral quandary is whether you should try to save a few lives and possibly fail, dooming many more. However, that film is all intellectualism, with very little call to sentimentality, exciting action scenes, or heroics. This film is the opposite. Make no mistake, there is no moral grey area in this movie. The question posed is whether one should destroy a town to save a country, but given that one side is basically moustache-twirling evil while the other contains our heroes, this interesting moral question is reduced to several shouting matches all shot in close-ups (like most of this movie). Watching the outbreak itself is the most interesting part of the movie. There are a few characters who catch the virus who we couldn’t care a whit about, and then some disturbing damselling in an attempt to make us care, but the more interesting storyline involves Jimbo the smuggler and the adorable little virus carrier. Jimbo is a screw-up, but it’s obvious that he connects with Betsy the monkey, and it’s genuinely sad when he passes the virus onto his unsuspecting girlfriend; despite their lower class status, their storyline gets more respect than the main plot of this film. Marcel the monkey is so cute, too. This movie is garbage, though.

Outbreak on IMDb


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