Author: Nathanael Molnár, originally published [4/14/2020]
I know for many people, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a time to revisit a lot of films about similar situations. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is a fan-favorite, as are some of the more science fiction angled movies like 28 Days Later or World War Z. I recently watched the 1995 Wolfgang Peterson-directed movie, Outbreak for the first time, which is currently available on Netflix.
The film stars Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding Jr., and (regrettably) Kevin Spacey. The story follows a group of doctors trying to find the host of a rapidly spreading disease that could wipe out the entire world’s population in a matter of hours.
Watching Outbreak in the context of today’s current conditions was rather interesting. Moviegoers seeing this in theaters in 1995 may have had a far different experience, be it better or worse. Perhaps they thought the extent to which things are pushed in the film were extreme or unrealistic. However, the situations presented in the film aren’t entirely inconceivable.
Mass military occupation, killing people trying to escape quarantine, and bombing infected areas, is not a stretch. Not necessarily in the sense that this could be a response to COVID-19. Rather, considering our reaction to something like COVID-19, this very easily could be our response to something far deadlier. The film’s Motaba virus kills far more people at a far quicker rate. Considering how COVID-19 has been handled (or mishandled), it makes one wonder what would happen to the world if something on the scale of Motaba broke out; it actually makes Outbreak look rather optimistic.
I found Outbreak to be a pretty solid movie. The performances are compelling, and it has a fast-paced intensity to it. I always get a kick out of movies that are a race against time, assuming the film invests you in what the characters are racing towards and against. Films about viruses and diseases can easily fall into focusing mostly on the scientific element, following a bunch of doctors speaking heavy jargon the entire time.
Outbreak excels in balancing its science with action/adventure elements, featuring some truly exhilarating helicopter chases, though it does play up the 1990s action movie side a little bit too often. However, considering the fact that we’re living in a situation similar to the movie’s plot right now, I’m okay with it straying slightly from realism.
Amidst the exhilarating action are scenes of genuine terror. There’s a sequence in a movie theater where one coughing person infects everyone. For any cinephile, this is the definition of squeamish. The subsequent scene shows one hospital being absolutely bombarded with sick people, ringing scarily true to what is happening today.
I was captivated seeing how a major viral outbreak plays out without the influence of social media. In the film, most people across the nation don’t know what is going on because the government keeps everything under wraps. Nobody leaves the quarantined town, and with all the landline phones shut down, nobody is able to communicate with the outside world; it is all self-contained. Obviously, that has changed today.
Our global network means that when something like COVID-19 happens, everyone immediately knows about it, is talking about it, and is reacting to it, even in its stages of infancy. This is beneficial in that it allows for wide-scale mobilization in order to shut everything down to help contain the spread of the virus. However, social media can also foster mass hysteria and misinformation. Both its good and bad qualities are inaccessible to the characters in this film.
Intriguingly, the film touches on U.S. military occupation in other countries. The opening of the film takes place in an African village where the virus first appears in the 1960s. The military immediately pulls their troops from the area and bombs it, with no efforts to help the indigenous people. They simply bomb it to oblivion and cover it up. These actions directly lead to the virus reappearing years later. Had the virus been dealt with properly at the time, it may have been resolved then and there.
Subsequently, to continue covering up their actions when the virus re-emerges, the military withholds vital information that could have helped the doctors arrive at a cure sooner. I think this speaks to how U.S. occupation and interference in other countries most often makes situations worse. When nationalism is put before helping others, not only do a lot of people ultimately suffer, but the direct ramifications can be hugely detrimental to everyone.
Overall, Outbreak is an especially interesting film to watch during COVID-19. There are parts where it hits really close to home, and other parts where it is simply high stakes fun. It plays with a lot of different genre types— drama, horror, thriller, action — which continuously keeps things interesting. This is a movie I may not have gotten as much out of had I watched it at some other time, but during COVID-19 there are parallels that certainly stand out.
This film leaves me wondering how our world today would react to something like the film’s Motaba virus. Understanding our response to Coronavirus, how would we respond to something infinitely more damaging and contagious? The chaos that would ensue across the world would be insurmountable. Would we be able to all come together to beat it, or would Motaba virus eviscerate the entire planet in less than a day? Perhaps a modern day reboot could answer this question.