OUTBREAK spread among 1995’s moviegoers like a sneeze in a theater, warning us that it was just a matter of time before microscopic malevolence let the monkey at the top of the food chain find out what it’s like to be an endangered specie. Richard Preston’s non-fiction book “The Hot Zone” made a major stir the year before, and the race-against-time thriller adaptation got an ironic publicity boost from an Ebola outbreak in Zaire. *

After an opener set in 1967 Zaire, where U.S. Army virologists “handle” a mysterious deadly viral event, the story moves up 28 years, when another Zairean germ scene is investigated by ‘Col. Sam Daniels’ (Dustin Hoffman), who warns his superiors that this one may spread. Naturally, since it’s the military end of The Complex, they blow him off, until similar sudden deaths begin occurring in the States. As Daniels and his team desperately track cause & cure, less-altruistic forces are also in play, citing “national defense”—where have we heard that bugle call before?

It moves like microbes on a mission, thanks to director Wolfgang Peterson, who’d proven skillful at kicking action into shape with Das Boot and In The Line Of Fire, and Hoffman’s banked by a solid coterie of pros including Morgan Freeman, Rene Russo, Kevin Spacey and Donald Sutherland. But the script (which went through more hands than the virus), disguised to appear as something serious, soon begins to feed on its host with too much cute interplay—one-liners, hoary relationship feuding, insubordination jive that wouldn’t pass in an Arby’s let alone the Army— and eventually mutates into absurd helicopter hijinks, undercutting the gravity of a man-extinguishing plague with star-coddling jokes, loveable dogs and naturally, assorted explosions.  Apart from its by-the-numbers schemata, the script is rife with technical errors, and the scientific aspects are not Hazmat suitable. Laurence Dworet & Robert Ray Poole wrote it: according to Poole it was then revised by at least a dozen other writers. Outbreak is to 2011’s smart and gripping Contagion what a runny nose is to pneumonia.

The plot’s mythical ‘Cedar Creek’ was actually Ferndale, California; the Hawaiian island of Kauai subbed for Zaire. Typical quality work from James Newton Howard on the tension prodding music score. Brought in for $50,000,000, the U.S. gross of $67,700,000 ranked it 24th for the year, but the total world tally reached $189,600,000.

With Cuba Gooding Jr., Patrick Dempsey, J.T. Walsh, Dale Dye, Zakes Mokae, Benito Martinez and Malick Bowens. 128 minutes.

* As if the O.J. verdict wasn’t depressing enough, movies in 1995 saw a future that was none too merciful. Twelve Monkeys and Waterworld posited a massive population decrease, while other scenarios offered flavors of dire via Judge Dredd, The Net, Virtuosity and Strange Days.

While the fevered screenplay-course hoops of Outbreak are a sick patient next to the believable gut-churn of Contagion, perhaps the writers and director were more savvy than the average bug to dumb-dial it down for the guy across the street, considering the appallingly S T U P I D reactions of millions of people to an actual epidemic, and being asked to risk the common sense of a goat. The quick-fix of Outbreak made 35% more than the measured reality dose of Contagion, which is roughly the same percentage of selfish fools who couldn’t spot a con or get a clue if it ripped them off or choked them to death.  Alas, no vaccine for idiocy.

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