Outbreak is a loose adaptation of The Hot Zone, Richard Preston’s 1994 best-seller that brought virus hunters, and the dramatic rise of ebolaviruses, into the popular consciousness. Stephen King referred to the first section of The Hot Zone as one of the most terrifying stories he’d ever encountered, and Outbreak attempts to translate that horror to the big screen, crafting a narrative that draws upon many of the anecdotes and incidents in Preston’s book, as well as the broader panic around the symptoms of ebolaviruses – especially the haemorrhagic fevers that Preston describes so vividly and unforgettably. In Outbreak, the virus in question is the Motaba virus, a kind of intensified ebolavirus that spreads like the flu, and first comes to American attention during the Kinsangani Mutinies of 1967. In a brief prologue, we witness the first emergence of this virus in an American military camp, before Major General Donald McClintock, played by Donald Sutherland, orders his men to collect a sample of the virus and then firebomb the camp, launching the film forward to the present day, to the United States Army Medical Research of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRID – a major institution in The Hot Zone – as the opening credits unfold.
Like The Hot Zone, Outbreak is fascinated with the procedure of virology research labs, and the frisson of sharing space with some of the deadliest pathogens in the world. Petersen sets the scene with a fluid tracking-shot that takes us through escalating biosafety laboratories, from Level 1, which houses relatively manageable viruses, to Level 4, which houses viruses for which there are “no known cures or vaccines.” At this early point, however, Outbreak doesn’t dwell too long on Level 4 protocol, giving us a brief glimpse of this otherworldly space before shifting back to the home of Sam Daniels, a virologist played by Dustin Hoffman, who is collecting his last box of possessions from his wife Roberta Keogh, also a virologist, played by Rene Russo, before they separate for good, and she moves to Atlanta to work for the Centre for Disease Control, another institution that features heavily in The Hot Zone. From there the action shifts one more time, as Sam is abruptly deployed to Zaire, along with his team of Casey Schuler (Kevin Spacey) and Major Salt (Cuba Gooding Junior), where there has been a second outbreak of Motaba virus, now the “most deadly virus in the world”, that appears to have burned itself out by the time that Sam and his soldiers arrive.
Between these rapidly shifting locations – the Congo, USAMRID, suburban America, Zaire – Petersen sets the scene for a film that will offer various moral explanations for the growth of global pandemics – African decolonisation, American interventionism, mass deforestation, habitat destruction, the illegal trade in animals – even as the film primarily figures the virus as a violation of the American nuclear couple, and the American small town community. In some ways, this is quite a conservative outlook, but it also allows Petersen to capture the viral continuity between the African jungle and the American suburbs in quite a resonant manner. Upon arriving in Zaire, Salt assures Sam that he is going to be fine on his first job, but it only takes one suffering African child for him to throw off his mask, and wrench off his protective gear in convulsive grief, confronted with the horror of African suffering, and US complicity in African suffering, with a rawness that takes him by surprise.
This uncanny continguity between suburban America and remote Africa drives the rest of the first act, which traces out the path of transmission as the Motaba virus makes its way to California, by way of a low-key animal smuggler, played by Patrick Dempsey, who steals a monkey from an animal shipment for a pet store owner in the small town of Cedar Creek. Throughout this first part of the film, Petersen draws upon Preston’s fascination with the contingent moments that together build the first critical steps in a viral outbreak, along with the terrifying consequences of even the most minor errors or administrative oversights on the part of the virologists who are struggling to contain it. At times, the depiction of Level 4 biosafety procedure seems to gravitate the key scientists here into the realm of science fiction – like a crew on a spaceship – as Petersen offers the virus hunter as a new kind of psychological profile in US cinema, driven by a “morbid desire to face the end of the world.”
This transmission narrative paves the way for the second act of Outbreak, which focuses on Cedar Creek as it is overrun by the Motaba virus, and then quarantined by the American military. The key transmission event occurs in a cinema, where Petersen visualizes the virus for the first time as it escapes from the mouth of an infected patron during the “coming attractions,” before a tracking-shot follows this man through the aisles, along the corridor, and finally into the candy bar queue, where he collapses amidst a crowd of other potential hosts. This decision to use a cinema as the site of the first main transmission event effectively sets the scene for all subsequent virus films, at least those produced in America, since it suggests that the pace and scope of the virus exceeds cinematic technology and perception, even when all the resources of Hollywood are mobilized against it. Outbreak thus establishes the logic of many later virus films, where information lags behind the virus, resulting in a scramble for intelligence that regular film language is inadequate to visualise.
Petersen captures this scramble for intelligence through his escalating recourse to tracking-shots, especially when tracing the path of transmission, or when people approach the threshold of hot zones, as if his camera were restless to accelerate to a speed capable of keeping pace with the virus – and to accelerate beyond mere cinema to a newer mode of media, with the informational capacities to stay one step ahead of the virus. Initially, this accelerated mode of cinema is associated with digital animation, which Petersen first introduces to show the microscopic viral particles disseminating in the cinema. However, Petersen only uses this digital imaging one more time, in a subsequent scene in the town hospital, and even then seems more interested in the new lengths of mobility his camera needs to attain to track this digital matter through the air than in the digital animation itself. It’s no coincidence that this second bout of digital animation coincides with the point at which Sam realises that the virus has evolved to become airborne, setting a challenge to Petersen’s camera to move as rapidly and seamlessly as viral data through the air around it.
We get our first glimpse of this new camera mobility in a dizzying 360-degree pan – almost a point-of-view shot from the virus – as the residents of Cedar Creek try to flee town, hurtling towards the city limits only to be met by a barrage of army tanks and helicopters that caution them, and then fire on them. As these measures intensify, the virus plays like an end to US exceptionalism, since as the town is surrounded, it gradually devolves back into the iconography of WWII cinema, from the flags hung at windows, to the makeshift hospitals, to the internment camps for residents who are being processed for the disease. For Outbreak, the prospect of a Motaba pandemic can only be compared to a world war, but a world war in which America can no longer choose to remain on the sidelines and commentate from afar. Hence McClintock’s insistence that the only way to be “compassionate, globally” is to draw on the “necessity” of Hiroshima by firebombing the town with “the biggest non-nuclear weapon in our arsenal,” much as he did with the original Motaba outbreak in Africa.
Part of the horror of Outbreak – at least for American audiences – thus lies in seeing American foreign policy mobilized against precisely the idyllic small-town community that it putatively protects. Rather than invoking the American small town as a rationale for war, McClintock insists that the residents of Cedar Creek are now “casualties of war,” and that “we’ve done all we can as doctors – we now have to go in as soldiers.” No surprise, then, when we discoverd that the virus was embedded in military strategy all along, as it emerges that McClintock had kept the original Motaba outbreak quiet in the hopes of developing the virus as a biological weapon for the American military. In that sense, the Motaba virus becomes an involution of American military policy – the point at which the military-industrial complex can no longer sustain its internal contradictions – not unlike the way in which American complicity in the very terrorist cells that destroyed the World Trade Centre produced a crisis of identity around the rise of terrorism five years later. In effect, Outbreak can only conceive of a pandemic as a terrorist threat, or a proto-terrorist threat – all the more terrifying (and, for McClintock, all the more demanding of a swift military intervention) because the agency and intentionality behind this bioterror remains opaque.
For all that McClintock is presented as the villain in Outbreak, he thus articulates American foreign policy at the time more directly and radically than any other character, meaning there’s an element of fantasy – an imaginative leap – in the way that Sam manages to outsmart and outpace him in the final act. In fact, outpacing McClintock and outpacing the virus come to mean the same thing, and converge with Petersen’s restless desire to outpace cinematic perception itself and thereby “think” with the same pre-cognitive instinct as a virus. If anything, the transmission event in the cinema indicates that cinematic perception is a major liability for virus hunters – part of an analog media ecology that is always destined to lag behind the real-time communication and comprehension required to keep pace with a virus. Much of Outbreak insists that communicating about a virus through regular channels is destined to produce this lag, to the point where these channels becomes sites of transmission in themselves – a situation that reaches its logical conclusion in Bruce MacDonald’s Pontypool, which questions what happens when the human language itself becomes viral. From this point on in American cinema and culture, the virus becomes a symbol for a digital threshold we can’t grasp, perhaps explaining why viral conspiracies so often revolve around these thresholds – most recently the widespread theories that COVID-19 was perpetuated through and by the latest iteration of the 5G worldwide digital network.
In other words, whereas Outbreak is moving in analog time, the Motaba virus is moving in digital time, especially once it becomes airborne, forcing Petersen into a spectacular, hyper-kinetic conclusion to catch up with it. Since the virus is continually rebooting and updating itself, like a technology that proceeds faster than any human invention, it’s not enough for Petersen to continually resort to digital animation, which has also been conspicuously absent from most subsequent pandemic films as well. Instead, Petersen concludes with one of the greatest helicopter sequences in American cinema – and possibly the greatest helicopter chase – as Sam flies out of Cedar Creek, flies to San Francisco, and then heads to an infected Chinese ship off the coast of California, where he finally identifies patient zero, before heading back to Cedar Creek with the host monkey, where he encounters the planes tasked with firebombing the town, who are now tasked by McClintock to shoot him down.
All Petersen’s escalating tracking-shots climax with this accelerating helicopter trajectory, which becomes the only way that Sam can stay one step ahead of the virus, while also occupying the mobile cusp of American media, garnering more attention and airplay with each new destination that he visits. In effect, Sam turns himself into an airborne viral media presence to fight an airborne virus, mapping out a “last line of defence” that shifts the military-industrial response into a military-industrial response, and finally allows him to glimpse the more notional and hypothetical spatial field – the Chinese ship, decontextualized and abstracted off the coast of California – needed to identify patient zero. Traversing the Californian landscape with the same pre-cognitive speed and instinctual fluidity as the Motaba virus itself, Salt also has to relinquish conscious thought and respond like a virus to pull off the most dexterous helicopter moves – “I didn’t know what I was going to do until I was doing it” – in what amounts to a manifesto for viral thinking in the face of a viral outbreak; or a viral refrain from thought, and from the kinds of administrative and institutionalized thought that have proven so disastrous in allowing viruses to prosper.
By occupying the position of the virus themselves, Sam and Salt almost unleash a broader Californian apocalyptism, distracting McClintock with a fake helicopter crash that very nearly blooms out into a forest fire, before the planes tasked with firebombing the town drop their explosives just off the coast, as Petersen pulls back for a wide shot that momentarily looks like the arrival of a tsunami along the western seaboard. For a moment, the film thus glimpses the terror of this viral outbreak moving beyond Cedar Creek to the rest of the world, but ultimately Petersen is unable to conceptualise or visualise the next stage in a pandemic – the movement beyond the first site of community transmission – since Sam’s discovery of the host monkey leads to an antiviral that works even quicker than the virus spreads, producing quite an abrupt and incongruous conclusion. Indeed, so rapid is this resolution that it never really feels like resolution at all – more a palette cleanser for the next big pandemic film, and the next big effort to visualise the digital-viral cusp within the space of the cinematic theatre that provides the critical transmission event in Outbreak itself. Fifteen years later, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion would make good on that promise, but this incompletion also makes Outbreak seem even stronger on its own terms – an exercise in the representational limits of the next big pandemic, and the liabilities of offering cinematic experience as a transmission-event capable of containing, resolving or solving it.