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Review: Revisiting 'Outbreak' 25 Years Later. When Fiction Suddenly Becomes Reality

You often hear the observation “If Hollywood had a crystal ball, they would only crank out hit movies.” So much for the existence of crystal balls.

Though you might question that from time to time when they occasionally make a movie that seems to accurately predict the future.

I’m thinking of The China Syndrome released just before the Three Mile Island melt down back in 1979.

The other one that stands out in my mind is Outbreak, released in 1995. It was a nightmarish sci-fi scenario in which a fictional pandemic threatens everyone on the planet.

It made for some white-knuckle screen drama when it was released, but experts cautioned us that a real-life catastrophic event like the one depicted was not a matter of if, it was a matter of when.

It made the point that humanity’s worst fear was the spread of an unstoppable virus for which we had no defense. Back then, it was pure science fiction, but a far cry from the imaginary aliens and creatures we were accustomed to seeing in movies that we knew weren’t real.

This undeniably was something real—something a billionth of our size that could rise up and strike us all down.

Welcome to the spring of 2020 and the sobering, real-life pandemic that we are all struggling to come to grips with. It seems unimaginable.

And yet it is actually happening. More troubling is that no one is really sure what is in store before it’s all over. Predictions vary widely.

You could argue that this might the worst time to screen a movie like Outbreak, but I would disagree. Yes, it’s a worst-case dramatization with all the trappings of a Hollywood horror movie.

Yet some of what is depicted seems to parallel our current state of affairs and from that perspective, it offers some valuable insight.

Sure, this outbreak didn’t start in Zaire back in the 1960s. No villages were nuked as a preemptive strike.

No monkeys were responsible for the transmission and spread of the disease to the United States. That part is pure Hollywood fantasy. I grant you that.

But what is interesting are some other plot points about the initial government denial of the pending crisis which results in the rapid spread of infection once the deadly chain of events is set in motion.

We see various ways the disease is spread through physical contact and proximity.

That includes a scene that I never forgot after first seeing the movie back in 1995.

It shows an infected person sneezing in a crowded movie theater, releasing a shower of tiny droplets that eventually contaminates everyone in the audience. I swear, that scene comes flashing back in all the years that followed whenever I hear someone audibly sneezing in a movie theater.

I envision those droplets of death exploding through the air in slow motion--Sam Peckinpah style.

It’s not long after that in the movie that Dustin Hoffman, playing a military doctor, glancing up at an AC duct in the ceiling of an overcrowded hospital announces “It’s airborne!” It is at that moment that we know that things are out of control and about to get much worse.

Just how much worse? This is where Outbreak becomes truly frightening and somewhat prophetic.

Frightening when the military sends troops to contain the residents of a small suburban town. Prophetic when the people are told to get in their houses and stay there. Those trying to escape are forcibly turned back.

There is chaos in the streets and jammed emergency rooms. There are long lines of people waiting to be tested in one of many army medical tents in a field.

Those in town suspected of the tell-tale, flu-like symptoms—coughing and high fever, incidentally—are asked to hang a white sheet on the front of their house as a sign to local authorities that they required attention and evaluation.

I know, some might find this to be a little unnerving, and hitting a little too close to home with regard to what we’re actually experiencing right now.

But I’d argue that it might drive home the seriousness of a global pandemic and the hard reality about how easily it can spread across the planet.

This is a film that everyone should see, from the Commander in Chief to that teenage dude on the Florida Beach who recently made light of COVID-19 on national TV, saying that it wasn’t going to change his spring break party plans.

What’s going on is serious and needs to be taken very seriously. I recommend that people devote a little time at home to watch Outbreak.

It’s impossible to shrug this movie off and dismiss it all as exaggerated fiction.

Dire message aside, Outbreak is a pretty good movie just in the way of entertainment.

It is directed by Wolfgang Peterson (Das Boot, The NeverEnding Story, Air Force One and The Perfect Storm) and it stars Dustin Hoffman, Renee Russo. Morgan Freeman. Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Donald Sutherland.

The story might go a little over the top with “Hollywood” catastrophe film plot elements that are admittedly improbable at times. It’s escapism.

But what you can’t escape here, upon revisiting this movie, is that it seemed to be hinting at something that we all needed to really think about and seriously plan to deal with. An eventuality. Something based on fact, not fiction.

Unfortunately, a lot of us walked out of the theater, got in our cars and wrote it off as just another scary movie.

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