'Outbreak' intrigues, but sacrifices horror for melodrama

By Doug Cummings

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Ever since the article "Crisis in the Hot Zone" was published in The New Yorker in 1991, there have been a flurry of popular fictional nightmares concerning the possibility of a viral outbreak in the United States. From techno-thrillers by Robin Cook to various movie deals and best-selling non-fiction, the viral "hot zone" is steaming the media into a medical frenzy.

"Outbreak," the new movie by director Wolfgang Peterson ("In the Line of Fire"), concerns itself with a deadly virus from an African monkey imported into the U.S. for research purposes. The virus threatens to wipe out a town in California and spread throughout the country.

Dustin Hoffman ("Hook") stars as Col. Sam Daniels, a rule-bending medical research doctor who is intent on stopping the virus regardless of political and military bureaucracy. His ex-wife, Robby Keough (Rene Russo), heads up a team from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention who enters the contaminated area and begins caring for the growing number of victims.

The movie is generally engaging, though its structure generates less suspense than the material could offer. The film takes a third-person point of view and relates to the audience the virus' history in the beginning scenes. The mystery is known to the audience long before any of the characters figure it out, and the resulting movie is less involving than if the audience had shared the scientists' perspective.

Director Peterson keeps the camera moving across its chaotic sets that swarm with panicing crowds, and even manages a few creative sequences where the camera depicts the virus' perspective as it travels from host to host.

Hoffman and Russo ("In the Line of Fire") add emotional substance as they struggle with their relationship while working together to stop the virus. Russo exhibits a tough gracefulness that softens Hoffman's frustrated eccentricity.

But while the movie keeps an eye on its relationships, it unfortunately emphasizes melodrama over personal drama and the last third of the film suffers from standard action heroics and stunt-filled helicopter chases. The scenes are well choreographed, but the sudden emphasis on action seems out of place compared to the film's earlier prepondance for character interaction.

Morgan Freeman ("The Shawshank Redemption") and Donald Sutherland ("The Puppet Masters") offer their usual refined performances in supporting roles, but the movie only uses them for quick appearances here and there.

"Outbreak" has a relevant premise that dramatizes the dangers in viral research, but it depicts the emergency in a surprisingly straightforward manner that encourages the audience to place themselves above the crisis. While its actors and subject matter keep the movie intriguing, one can't help wondering how much more horrifying a real outbreak would actually be.

"Outbreak" is showing at Century Park 16, 620-0750.

Read Next Article