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Cinema de Gym: 'Outbreak'

Kurt here with your weekly movie exercise. This week at the gym I saw Outbreak, the 1995 disaster drama that cashed in on the Ebola virus fears that tore through the U.S. in the late '80s and early '90s. The virus in Outbreak is known as Motaba, which also has African origins and is spread via a monkey host (the film is loosely based on The Hot Zone, a nonfiction book about Ebola by New Yorker reporter Richard Preston). For me, there is no scarier film villain than the global pandemic. You can always outrun Ghostface, or jab Michael Myers in the eye with a wire hanger. Even an apocalyptic meteor is somehow less terrifying, perhaps because it arrives in a flash, its devastation unseen until that moment of impact. The indiscriminate horror of an unstoppable disease creeps in around you like darkness, randomly affecting others until it catches you, and there's nothing you can do about it. I've never been good with sickness, so the concept of the ultimate sickness always hits a nerve (you can bet I had irrational fears during the whole Swine Flu scare).

Which, of course, is why I've always responded strongly to pandemic films. Though many have surely been done well, global-killer thrillers involving zombies can't elicit the same reaction. The mad upending of all that makes logical sense in the world remains intact, but there's always the comfort of fantasy. Truly scary are things like Stephen King's The Stand, which – before it, too, becomes highly fantastical – offers a chilling vision of a wiped-out population. Released just a year later, Outbreak ditches the fantasy, save your typical Hollywood plot contrivances. Its solace (and script convenience) is that the fatal bug is basically confined to a tiny town (the fictional Cedar Creek, Calif.), and poses only the threat of worldwide infection. But hell if that made a whole lot of difference to yours truly.

I remember being very into this movie in the '90s; however, I don't think I ever knew it was directed by Wolfgang Peterson, he of Das Boot, The Perfect Storm and Poseidon fame. If pandemics are one rung up from earthbound meteors, then Petersen is a few rungs up from his oft-confused German counterpart, Roland Emmerich, who's far more gruesome, bombastic and frequent in his attempts to kill mass amounts of people. Petersen also knows how to assemble a classy cast, as Outbreak stars Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman, Rene Russo (please get back to work!), Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Cuba Gooding Jr. and a blink-and-miss McDreamey as the first Motaba victim. 

The culpritThe segment I caught consisted mainly of Hoffman's Col. Sam Daniels and Gooding Jr.'s Major Salt tracking down that monkey, first on a ship, then finally in the backyard of a suburban home, where a young girl's been feeding it like a pet. Source of both virus and antivirus, the monkey is the cure, and Col. Daniels is especially motivated, seeing as things have grown personal (ex-wife Russo's got Motaba) and bloodthirsty bureaucrats are on his tail (Sutherland, whom we just saw in Fool's Gold, plays one Gen. McClintock, the sort of military man with bio-weapons on the brain). At the end of my session, McClintock and Daniels were embroiled in a helicopter chase, which kicks off with one of those only-in-the-movies exchanges that beckons for applause. “With all due respect, Col. Daniels, I will blow you out of the sky,” McClintock snarls. “With all due respect,” Daniels retorts, “f**k you. Sir.”


1. In addition to showing off the enviable physiques of Matthew McConaughey and Will Smith, my gym is now urging me to keep healthy with the threat of disease.
2. Don't let your nieces and nephews and sons and daughters play with monkeys, as fleas could be the least that they're carrying.
3. Donald Sutherland, whom I also just saw in Horrible Bosses, is officially stalking me.
4. Disease > Meteor. Wolfgang > Roland.

What scares the bejesus out of you at the movies?

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Reader Comments (4)

I think being stalked by Donald Sutherland at the gym is probably as scary as airborne viruses... especially if he's giving you that 70s stare.

Regarding #4. yes and yes.

July 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Bad dialogue scares me as much as anything...

Kidding (sort of). I think I watched this movie 2 or 3 times back in the day (albeit on cable) because I had a bit of a fannish crush on Rene Russo (until she messed with her face, that is.) She was sooo lovely - and in everything at the time, it seems (she was wonderful support, as I recall, in Get Shorty. Writer William Goldman made some very interesting observations in one of his books as to the reason her career cooled - one flop film that she headlined, and the studios didn't want to hire her; whereas, he observed, A-list male actors were usually allowed repeated flops.)

I also recall Kevin Spacey having a supporting role in this as Rene's co-worker in the lab, back when he was still "who is that guy" to me, just before he splashed out with American Beauty, etc and became the hottest actor on the planet. (And didn't that cool rather quickly?)

July 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Janice -- now i'm having trouble recalling which film of Russo's didn't hit. She was in so many hits and then she was just gone. It was definitely weird.

I don't remember this movie at all other than that i thought it was vaguely ridiculous. I like uncontrollable virus movies a lot more when they result in zombies. And even those i'm cooling on after a glut of them.

July 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

My Rene Russo peak -- and hers as well, since it was most certainly downhill from there -- was The Thomas Crown Affair. She's incredibly strong and sexy in that. I still revisit it from time to time simply for her character/performance.

July 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKurtis O
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