Contagion was one of the best movies I saw in 2012. A seemingly unstoppable virus is tearing its way across the world. Can it be stopped? Smart, well-written, well-acted and stylish, it was a great movie. Released 16 years earlier, 1995's Outbreak deals with a very similar story and formula. Where does it stand in comparison?
A longtime disease specialist/virologist working for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USARMIID), Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) and his team have been sent to Zaire to deal with a new disease that wiped out an entire village. What they find is terrifying, a virus that replicates quickly, claiming victims within a 24-hour period. Daniels' crew manages to contain the disease within the village, taking samples and clearing out before the disease can spread. Just days later though, a patient in a hospital in Boston has the symptoms similar to the disease. Then there's another in California, and then a whole town. How did the disease spread so quickly? Can it be stopped before it wipes out thousands and maybe millions? Daniels and his team go to work, but there may be more at work within the government than they know trying to stop them.
From director Wolfgang Petersen, 'Outbreak' is a good example of a modern disaster film that doesn't have to resort to gimmicks to be good. When disaster films were at their most popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they became cliched quickly, trying to one-up each other one after another. That's not really an issue here, a pretty smart script laying out a situation that could really happen. Viruses and diseases are constantly evolving. Can the medical field and the government stay ahead of those evolutions? 'Outbreak' blends that intelligent premise with an all-star cast and lets things take off. For the most part, I liked it....for awhile. That's for a little later though. For now, here's some positives.
In much the same way I enjoyed Contagion, 'Outbreak' is at its best in dealing with the social implications involved here. We see how the USARMIID and the CDC respond, trying to react as quickly as possible. We see the government planning ahead for all possible contingency plans, however dark they may be. Petersen's got an eye for it, covering a ton of ideas and scenarios in relatively quick fashion. While there's a lot of characters and situations, it doesn't feel rushed. The disease spreads quickly, the virus jumping and developing quickly. It's all cut together at a lightning-pace, bouncing among all the different affected parties. Things take a turn for the dark when a California town is a breakout point, patients piling up at an alarming rate. The USARMIID, CDC, military and government descend on the town, other advances being made to track down the source. How did this disease spread? Those are the coolest moments, a frightening premise to think about in our current world.
Now for that all-star cast!!! It's interesting watching Dustin Hoffman do just about anything on-screen, and he's a great lead here. Unfortunately some of his character background is dealing with his recently divorced wife, Robby (Rene Russo), who's taken a job at the CDC. Oh, divorce drama! Still, Hoffman and Russo have a good chemistry. Rounding out Daniels' team are Kevin Spacey as Casey, the smart-ass, highly intelligent assistant who's worked for years with Daniels, and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Salt, a new recruit with an army and medical background but no field experience. Representing the government/military higher-ups, Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland play highly-ranked officers who know more than they're letting on (courtesy of a 1967 flashback to open the film we see). Also look for Patrick Dempsey as an unknowing spreader of the disease, a cool, quick and essential subplot to the story.
And there it is. A good, creepy, entertaining story that could have been based in some sort of reality. And then there's the last 45 minutes. Hoffman's Daniels becomes a superhero, Gooding Jr. his intrepid sidekick, the duo traveling all over California, Sutherland's evil general in hot pursuit, and all against the clock. There's helicopter chases, a trap for a cute, disease-ridden monkey, an evil general obsessed with something, taking over a TV news broadcast, a helicopter with an endless supply of fuel, and a big old shift in tone that goes from serious and dramatic to goofy and campy. The movie is still good, but the last third is pretty rough. We're not sure who makes it, and it all is resolved rather quickly in a flash. Could have been great in the end, but it's okay instead.
Outbreak (1995): ** 1/2 /****