Movies come and go from Netflix all the time, and you can't be expected to keep track of each film that's leaving the streaming service in a given month. That's where Inverse comes in, and this week, there's only one movie you really need to watch on Netflix before it leaves on Saturday, May 30.
To say Outbreak is a "timely" movie in the Covid-19 pandemic is like calling Independence Day timely after 9/11. The movie is about a deadly disease, yes, but that's where the similarities end.
In this astonishingly dumb and dated movie, a disease hosted by a smuggled monkey sold in a pet shop turns a small California town into a war zone. And I really mean war zone. The U.S. military mobilizes — in extremely close proximity! — with tanks and loaded guns as they trample over townspeople, none of whom wear masks. They have their guns pointed to nothing but the idea of a threat. All the while, a crack team of doctors putz around in HAZMAT suits like they're the Ghostbusters, one of whom has an ex-wife that practically causes the whole thing to get worse.
Outbreak is the movie those protesting Covid-19 restrictions think they're living. It is in every sense of the word a Hollywood movie, one that takes a single premise — a viral disease in a small town — and gives it the real infection of studio notes, with helicopter chases and a romance subplot getting in the way of doing anything authentic and interesting. The disease itself is never named, and it sickens its victims quicker than a zombie bite.
But the novelty of the movie is its own fun. In the midst of a very real pandemic, and in a world where Steven Soderbergh's Contagion exists, Outbreak is a must-see sideshow attraction disguised as a Hollywood farce. And since it only has a few days left on Netflix, May 2020 is the perfect time to revisit what the mid-1990s thought a medical disaster ought to look like.
To understand Outbreak, you need to go back a year before its release. In 1994, sitting at the top of the June New York Times best-seller list was The Hot Zone, a nonfiction book by journalist and author Richard Preston. Based on a 1992 New Yorker article about the 1989 Ebola outbreak in Virginia that originated in lab monkeys, the book became the center of its own fever: A bidding war between Hollywood movie studios.
20th Century Fox came out victorious. But Warner Bros., which participated in and lost the war, opted to make its own biological disaster movie. With the help of Arnold Kopelson, producer of hits like Platoon (1986) and The Fugitive (1993) and friend to emergency-room-doctor-turned-screenwriter Lawrence Dworet, Warner released Outbreak in 1995.
Directed by Wolfgang Peterson, the movie features an all-star cast including Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Donald Sutherland, Kevin Spacey, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Patrick Dempsey as a punk teenager who becomes "Patient Zero." Hoffman leads the film as Colonel Sam Daniels, MD, a USAMRIID virologist who defies orders to trace the disease (at one point, he ends up on the South Korean boat where the monkey was smuggled). Rene Russo stars as Robby, Sam's ex-wife and a doctor who begins a new job at the CDC just as things go to hell.
Outbreak bills itself as a medical disaster movie, but it's not. It's a domestic war movie without an enemy army. The disease is both plot device and antagonist, serving as a wedge between Hoffman and anyone else standing in his way — including an inexplicably villainous Donald Sutherland (as Major General McClintock) who exists solely for the purpose of a climactic helicopter firefight.
Comparing Outbreak to either real-life in 2020 or Soderbergh's smarter and somewhat nihilistic 2011 movie Contagion reveals all the ways Outbreak falls short. It is a Hollywood movie through and through, opting for explosive spectacle and pizzazz when that's not what anyone going into in a disease movie should expect. It's not that a movie can't have fun — again, Contagion exists, and it does some legitimately thrilling things like the collapse of social order without trying to outdo Michael Bay's second unit — but the movie's juxtaposing flavors of "disease movie" and "war movie" fail to coalesce when paired together.
But if watching the movie on Netflix is a guaranteed way of convincing you to stay indoors, even if your governor "reopens" your local economy, then I'm telling you: Don't go outside. Watch Outbreak. Only one of these things won't hurt as much.
Outbreak leaves Netflix on May 30.