During these times, sometimes I feel the best way to cope is to approach with a level of dark humor. And what better way to tap into that humor than by looking at some of the poorly done pandemic films over cinematic history. Each week I’ll dissect a new film, ripping it apart to find some socially distanced catharsis.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 60%
If you scroll through the Outbreak Wikipedia entry, you wouldn’t peg it as a bad movie. It was a commercial success, earning over $120 million at the box office. Roger Ebert heaped huge praise on it, calling it, “one of the great scare stories of our time.” But then you press play, and an entirely different story shows itself. The plot is messy, the dialogue static, and it features just an incredibly awkward romance.
So let’s unpack this thing. We start off heavy on the xenophobia with a virus outbreak in the African jungle, brought to America by a monkey via a Chinese ship. The U.S. military puts its best team of sexual scumbags on the case. Our ringleader is Colonel Sam Daniels, played by Dustin Hoffman, a virologist who refuses to play by the rules. Kevin Spacey as Casey Schuler is his right-hand man and they recruit Major Salt (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who’s only qualification for handling a pandemic seems to be doing a quick skim of “Virus for Dummies” before boarding the flight to Zaire. These three all report to the by-the-book General Billy Ford, played by Morgan Freeman. Seriously, I don’t think there’s been a cast that’s aged more poorly.
Once back in the states, they take the virus to the lab, zoom in and enhance, and diagnose the virus as “Motaba.” By this point Motaba has made its way to American soil. Patient zero: Jimbo Scott, played by Patrick Dempsey looking super McDreamy with his luscious looks and Motorhead t-shirt. He tries selling our contagious monkey on the black market, fails, and then proceeds to Harry and the Hendersons the thing into the woods, dooming us all the in the process.
Here’s the kicker though: this monkey was actually a two viruses for the price of one monkey. There’s the original water-borne virus that infects Jimbo and somehow does not spread after his trip to Boston. Then there’s the much more dangerous airborne mutation sweeping through a small town in coastal California. Action must be taken right away to save humanity, and in steps Colonel Daniels.
Except Daniels seems constantly preoccupied by the thought of his failing marriage with CDC scientist Robby Keough (Rene Russo) to even begin wrapping his brain around a global catastrophe or whatever. I mean he never misses a chance to interrupt an important medical briefing by venting about a weird self-imposed custody battle he’s having over their DOGS. He’s one step away from just flipping through the family photo album with patients on their deathbeds. This love rescue mission Daniels is on destroys any chance at intensity in the film, something you might want if you’re telling a story about the world potentially ending.
Health-professionals, military personnel, and generic 90’s news reporters flock to California as Motoba has started its spread. Daniels squeezes past the barricades, against general’s orders, because nothing saves a fractured relationship quicker than curing deadly disease. Meanwhile, on the warfront enters Major General Donald McClintock (Donald Sutherland) hellbent on prioritizing what matters the most, the military’s spit-shine sparkling PR image.
In perhaps the most accurate aspect of the film, McClintock makes the decision to firebomb hundreds of infected civilians, simply to hide the fact that the military were developing the Motaba strain to use as a biological weapon, which is you know, a war crime. Daniels learns of the plot, decides that’s uhh kind of fucked up, and takes matters into his own hands. I guess it’s just a slight coincidence that Keough is also now infected.
Daniels and Salt set out to search and destroy the source monkey. They track the monkey to a six-year-old girl who has just been the most hospitable tea party host for our number one public health threat. Daniels comes up with the most brilliant idea to catch the monkey. They will use the, I repeat, SIX-YEAR-OLD girl as bait, putting her in the middle of a tranquilizer gun and a deadly contagious wild animal. Daniels gives the girl an inspiring pep talk that basically boils down to, “oooo I love my wife,” and by gosh it works.
With the monkey secured, Daniels and Salt hightail it back to the infected site, but not before a totally sweet helicopter montage. However, McClintock still has Operation Clean Sweep at all systems go. Just a quick side note, if you’re planning on spinning the obliteration of an American town as in the public interest, maybe don’t name it Operation Clean Sweep. Daniels sweet talks the bomber pilots into abandoning the mission, detonating over the Pacific.
The dynamic duo then head to the hospital. Salt has miraculously gone from just learning about viruses at the beginning of the film to Nobel Prize winning biologist, developing an antidote in like 7 minutes. Humanity is saved, but most importantly, it looks like Daniels and Keough are going to make it you guys. Oh yeah, and Kevin Spacey dies. Just a great happy ending all around.
So when the credits rolls, I suggest reflecting on the highly important message this movie delivers in these uncertain circumstances. Hit up your ex, because maybe all you needed was a massive pandemic to really make it work.