The deadliest things are the things we cannot see.
Outbreak (1995), the work of Director Wolfgang Petersen, is an example of the Hollywood depiction of the medical pandemic thriller. Like the successive films to follow in this genre, each have somewhat combined elements on the personal development of characters, conspiracy, horror and the requisite graphic portrayal of infections. The more bloody and macabre, the better. Outbreak, however, does not particularly emphasise this exaggeration. Though there are errors in the film that would conflict with facts in the fields of Epidemiology and Virology (such as the virus mutating from being spread via bodily fluids to becoming airborne and the instant application of the vaccine from the monkey to the infected in a span of less than a day – according to science, these are unlikely). Despite this, the artistic rendering of the film poses the question of what would happen if such an outbreak occurred in reality? A deadly pandemic occurring around us in our lifetime is a very real possibility to consider.
Outbreak, amongst other notable related medical pandemic films such as Contagion (2011), 12 Monkeys (1995) and 28 Days Later (2002), demonstrate the potential of such a danger occurring in society. Thus, we should thank the medium of film posing the “what-if” questions through their visual representations. A worldwide viral contagion is more plausible to happen than say, an invasion of Godzilla sized killer bees. So why dismiss the notion? Perhaps it’s the idea of the threat we can’t even see, how do we know it’s even there? Maybe it’s not even there at all? Through cinema, we’re able to consider the dangers of the microscopic to the point that we’ll now bring hand sanitizer wherever we go. How else would we learn about the real hazards of viral infections if not dramatically on the big screen? In fact, how can we easily dismiss such portrayals as mere fiction when in this increasingly Globalised world, transmission of viruses are easier to pass on around the globe undetected? You only need to look at the Bird and Swine Flu pandemics that have happened in the past decade to realize that such a threat is possible.
The Outbreak plot basically outlines the development of the Motaba Virus in the African country of Zaire. A team, led by Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman), travel to the nation to assess Motaba and are assured by Morgan Freeman’s character, General Billy Ford, that such a virus will not outbreak into the United States. Meanwhile, a parallel scene shows a monkey, contaminated with the virus being illegally smuggled into America, infecting the handler and thus beginning a contagion around California. The town of Cedar Creek becomes the epicenter of the virus, infecting most of the inhabitants resulting in a quarantine guarded by the military. Naturally, as one can find in a Hollywood blockbuster, the protagonist defies higher command, gets the vaccine to cure the infected, gets the girl and therefore saves the day.
What particularly impacted on me was the idea of the government withholding information on the virus and its serum in order to use it in biological warfare. It raises the possibility of looking at viruses not only as a threat in itself, but as a threat wielded by bioterrorists. We can look to history to confirm that this is not just pure Hollywood fantasy. During the aftermath of the 2001 September 11 attacks, there were several attacks of Anthrax sent through to Congressmen and Media personnel via mail. In World War II, the Japanese were engaged in research in what was known as Unit 731 – its many activities included Germ warfare, where individuals were injected with diseases guised as vaccines. Though it may seem almost conspiratorial to propose this, it still makes one consider the potential for this to happen; particularly when certain groups or individuals have had the power to use these diseases to their advantages (case in point: The terrorist/doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo had in their possession cultures of Anthrax and the Ebola virus). The deadliest things are the things we cannot see, and thus by being so miniscule they are harder to control or eradicate. The film certainly opens up the prospect of biological warfare/terrorism and it certainly pays to bear this in mind as not being merely Hollywood embellishment after all.
The plot: 3/5
The science: 3/5