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movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Outbreak

Starring: Dustin Putman, Rene Russo
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Rated: R
RunTime: 128 Minutes
Release Date: March 1995
Genres: Action, Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Donald Sutherland, Patrick Dempsey, Zakes Mokae, Dale Dye, Jim Antonio

Review by Dragan Antulov
1 star out of 4

When people think about the eradication of human race, they usually envision nuclear holocaust, sudden change of climate, asteroids falling from the sky or similar spectacular events. But history teaches us that the equally deadly potential lies in tiny microscopic organisms - viruses and bacteria able to practically wipe out entire nations. Invention of antibiotics and progress of medical science in the last century or so created illusion that the infectious diseases are the thing of the past. That illusion was shattered with the epidemic of AIDS in 1980s, and people are now more willing to pay attention when media starts reporting about various exotic ailments that happen to be contagious, deadly and untreatable. Few of those ailments are as scary as various forms of haemorrhagic fever - extremely contagious viral infection that causes one of the most unpleasant deaths imaginable. Probably the most notorious among them is Ebola, disease which killed hundreds of people in central regions of Africa five years ago. By the unusual yet chilling coincidence, these events happened roughly in the same time as the premiere of OUTBREAK, major Hollywood feature film that dealt the effects of Ebola-like outbreak on modern society.

The "protagonist" of this film is Motaba virus, strain from Central Africa which is able to kill infected human in less than 48 hours upon contagion. Despite not being airborne and thus having limited contagion potentials, the strain is so deadly that the two US Army experts in late 1960s would rather firebomb the infected camp in Central African jungle than allow infection to spread further. Some thirty years later, Motaba again strikes Central Africa, but, as usual in such circumstances, isolated villagers are dead before they can spread the infection further. Unfortunately, monkeys can carry the virus and one of them is caught and smuggled into USA. Soon, the population of Cedar Creek, small town in California, starts getting sick and dying like flies. Colonel Sam Daniels (played by Dustin Hoffman), U.S. Army top expert for infectious diseases disobeys the orders of his superiors - General Billy Ford (played by Morgan Freeman) and General Donald McClintock (played by Donald Sutherland) - and flies to now quarantined Cedar Creek in order to investigate the origin of mysterious plague. There he meets his estranged wife Robby Keough (played by Rene Russo) who investigates disease as the head of CDC team. They start working together while the crisis escalates, because the strain mutated into airborne form. While Daniels and Keough struggle to find possible cure and thus stop the epidemic from spreading to the rest of the nation, McClintock offers simple but grim alternative - firebombing the town and incinerating the virus together with all the inhabitants.

OUTBREAK was directed by Wolfgang Petersen, German filmmaker who enjoys reputation of one of the best craftsmen in modern Hollywood. His talent is at display in this film, especially in the way he paces film and turns screenplay by Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool into thought-provoking yet exciting story. The same feeling of doom and helplessness that marked DAS BOOT, Petersen's best known film, could be sensed here too, but Petersen creates it through entirely different methods. Events in the film happen at the rapid pace, and the viewer could empathise with the protagonists who see world literally falling apart before their eyes, in the same way microscopic bug destroys the bodies of their victims. Petersen is uncompromising in the portrayal of the destructive effects of haemorrhagic fever - nobody is immune from its devastating effect, people get infected and die regardless of their race, religion, gender, age or whether they are nice people or not (all illustrated with almost comedic but chilling shots of virus travelling from one unsuspecting host to another). What is even more chilling in this film is the way epidemic destroys society indirectly - human relations, even most basic must be severed, kindness and compassion equals suicide, people must leave their loved ones in order to survive and the only way to stop the apocalypse is to use even less considerations and more genocidal potential than the illness itself. Because of the chillingly realistic and believable depiction of the apocalypse that might wait around the corner turned OUTBREAK was supposed to be one of the best disaster films ever made in Hollywood.

Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Although Petersen managed to overcome some unnecessary plot distractions in the screenplay (marital problems of the protagonists), he couldn't overcome certain realities of 1990s Hollywood. And one of such realities is the unwritten rule that any film with a budget over 50 million US$ must have obligatory happy ending in order to satisfy the audience. So, in the last third, film suddenly changes genre and general mood - what was supposed to be dark, disturbing drama about conflict between Humanity and Nature is suddenly turning into light-hearted actionfest that feature conflict between Good Guy (Dustin Hoffman not very comfortable and even less believable as action hero) and Bad Guy (in the form of Donald Sutherland who repeats his evil bureaucrat/officer routine for the umpteenth time). Naturally, all notions of credibility go down the toilet and the viewers' intelligence is repeatedly insulted with the series of implausibilities - while average R&D in real life pharmaceutical industry takes years to create drugs, our hero manages to extract the medicine in the matter of minutes, just to save his wife in time; bomber crews, which are trained to exterminate millions of innocent civillians without any remorse, are simply talked into disobeying the direct order). That last segment of OUTBREAK - flooded with cliches and cheap sentimentality - is probably the one of the most disappointing pieces of celluloid ever made in 1990s Hollywood and it could serve as the perfect illustration of the sad state of American film industry.

To be fair, even in this segment, Petersen handles the action very well, and OUTBREAK in general looks like a well-acted and well-crafted film. But, among the many missed opportunities of 1990s Hollywood, this one is probably the most bitter.

Copyright 2000 Dragan Antulov

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