Back in 1967 a virus was discovered in Zaire which was far more deadly than many of the known dangerous diseases, and a solution to stop it spreading had to be found. That was why in the remote compound where the afflicted were being kept, the American military took drastic action and dropped a large bomb on the area, thereby not only killing the virus but everyone down there unlucky enough to be in the vicinity. Now, almost twenty years later, army doctor Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) is working with infectious diseases, not knowing he is about to meet his match...
You know how in those movies where somebody coughs, that means they won't live past the end credits because they have some ailment sure to spell their demise? Well, Outbreak was a whole story based on that premise which saw an all star cast battling to save humanity from the so-called Motoba virus, a notion which was then quite fashionable thanks to the ebola virus being prominently featured in the news. It was one of those factors which the media would have had you believe indicated impending doom for the human race, the sort of panic that appears periodically such as Swine Flu, Bird Flu, Mad Cow Disease, falling asteroids, African killer bees, video nasties, the Tango ad, or clackers.
If you were aware of the territory then you would be able to settle down for two hours of infection-based paranoia in the manner of your traditional disaster flick of a nineteen-seventies vintage. Certainly the star power was there, and went some way to contributing to a respectable hit for director Wolfgang Petersen and his team, helping to downplay a theme that people were basically stupid and prone to making idiotic mistakes. Only one person can rise above this, and that's Sam who drags everyone up he can around him to his level thanks to his keen sense of fair play and warmth for his fellow man (and woman), although he is not without enemies, in the form of Donald Sutherland's boo-hiss general.
The way this African contagion spreads to a small town in California is somewhat convoluted to say the least, involving as it does the transportation of a cheeky monkey from Zaire all the way to America where it is monkey-napped by opportunist Patrick Dempsey who wishes to get cash for it by selling the creature to a pet shop which supplies to a private owner. When the monkey proves not to be the right gender, Dempsey releases it to the forest, but not before getting infected, and so like dominos the supporting cast topple as the nearby town is subjected to first some very bad illnesses, and next the military showing up to try and contain the outbreak before it gets out of hand.
Naturally, or unnaturally, the virus is a super sci-fi strain which none of your pathetic human medicine can tackle, and Sam is in a tricky position when he wangles his way into the town, meeting up with ex-wife Robby (Rene Russo) with whom he has just broken up. So there's a soap opera element there, but Petersen and his gang of screenwriters (many more than those who were finally credited) did their best to avoid complete corniness because the central idea tapped into very real fears of infection: cue loads of shots of people shivering uncontrollably, sweating, getting nasty rashes and the like. But what was most interesting about what they came up with for the Daniels character was that unlikely as Hoffman seemed as an action hero, they got away with it by making him a pacifist, there to save lives rather than wipe them out, so we didn't get the sight of Dustin picking up an automatic weapon and combating the bad guys that way. Not that Outbreak was anti-military, more anti the abuse of the military, pulling together a good many threads to fashion solid, thoughtful entertainment with a dose of hysteria. Music by James Newton Howard.