A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
It is one of the great scare stories of our time, the notion that deep in the uncharted rain forests, deadly diseases are lurking, and if they ever escape their jungle homes and enter the human bloodstream, there will be a new plague the likes of which we have never seen.
Wolfgang Petersen's "Outbreak" is a clever, daunting thriller about such a possibility. It follows the career of a microscopic bug that kills humans within 24 hours of exposure by liquefying the internal organs. Not a pretty picture. The bug is based on fact; an account of something similar can be found in Richard Preston's new book, The Hot Zone. The thriller occupies the same territory as countless science fiction movies about deadly invasions and high-tech conspiracies, but has been made with intelligence and an appealing human dimension.
"Outbreak" opens 30 years ago, in Africa, as American doctors descend on a small village that has been wiped out by a deadly new plague. They promise relief but send instead a single airplane that incinerates the village with a firebomb. The implication is that the microbe is too deadly to deal with any other way; there is no information about where the bug came from, or why it surfaced in this remote area, although the village witch doctor is quoted ominously: "It is not good to kill the trees." Flash forward to the present. Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo are a newly divorced couple, both experts in disease-causing microorganisms. He works for the Army, and she has just taken a new job at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. As we follow the disintegration of their relationship, Petersen intercuts scenes showing an African monkey being illegally imported into the United States. This monkey, of course, carries the deadly bug, and the smuggler, unable to sell it, releases it in a California woodland, although not before being infected.
Petersen now shows the disease being spread from one carrier to another, in a montage that would be funny if it were not so chilling: When the first carrier gets off a flight to Boston, he is flushed, sweating, trembling and almost too weak to stand, but his girlfriend, of course, doesn't let his illness stand in the way of a long, deep kiss. Back in a small California town, an infected carrier sneezes in a movie theater, and the camera stalks the germs as they wend their way through the crowd. In a laboratory, a test tube breaks in a centrifuge, and a scientist is infected. And so on. I especially liked the moment when the smuggler takes one bite out of a cookie on an airplane, and a little kid asks him if he's planning to eat the rest of it.