I don't know if you've heard, but there's a global pandemic going on. As soon as the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China and swiftly sped across the Middle East to southern Europe and the east and west coasts of America, there was a marked uptick in hand sanitizer purchases, an immediate shortage of N95 masks, and the 2011 Steven Soderbergh movie Contagion was the top rented movie on Amazon and iTunes for two weeks. Contagion is, to put it bluntly, absolutely terrifying, full of innocuous shots of people sneezing and touching subway poles, the rims of drinking glasses, other people's mouths, and the swift societal collapse is shot in a detached way that makes a lot of it seem like a documentary rather than a fiction film. It's hard to imagine how watching a movie like this would make anyone feel better, though it makes a strange amount of sense. If you are looking to have a good time while also scratching that pandemic movie itch, try the 1995 movie Outbreak on Netflix instead.
Twenty-five years ago this week, Outbreak, whose microscopic villain is an Ebola-like virus that originates in Zaire, opened in theaters while an actual Ebola outbreak was occurring in Zaire in the real world. For a certain generation, if you've seen this movie, you probably watched it in your biology class. Or, even if you didn't watch this movie, your teacher probably assigned you Richard Preston's nonfiction account of the origins and spread of filoviruses like Ebola titled The Hot Zone, on which the movie is based. Outbreak, though, is more of an action thriller and less of a real-world account of the spread of disease -- it's confined to mostly one fictional California small town, and, at a certain point, turns into a good-guys-vs-bad-guys melee with some sick helicopter stunts.
In 1967, the story goes, during the Kisangani Mutinies, the U.S. Army comes into contact with a novel virus called Motaba, but instead of alerting the world, they collect a sample and then bomb the small town, effectively eradicating it -- so they think. Instead, the virus lives on in a host population of small monkeys, one of which, 30 years later, is poached by an animal trader (Patrick Dempsey!) and taken across the ocean to America to be sold as a pet. In one memorable scene, the monkey sneezes wetly right into Dempsey's mouth, infecting him with Motaba. From there, the virus spreads into a small inland town, and a virologist from USAMRIID, played by Dustin Hoffman, makes it his business to find a cure -- and, hopefully, get back together with his ex-wife, a CDC scientist played by Rene Russo.