“Outbreak” – Action Film or SF? – V. Munoz

Victoria Munoz

Professor Jason W. Ellis

ENG2420-E573 – SF

Spring 2020

“Outbreak” – Action Film or SF? – V. Munoz

Friday, March 13, 2020 marked an important date in history for New York. For many and most New Yorkers, jobs were halted, schools, restaurants, bars, music venues, sports events were shut down and canceled. Closures were happening left and right, and the city (and the world) as we knew it was on its way to undergo some drastic changes due to the novel virus COVID-19. Twenty-five years and three days earlier on March 10, 1995 Warner Bros released a box office hit, “Outbreak,” whose plot follows the destruction of an airborne virus similar to the one we are dealing with today. The question I will attempt to answer is this: may we consider this blockbuster film a work of Science Fiction? Or is it just another explosion-filled surface-level Hollywood action film?

When we think about Science Fiction as a genre we usually imagine an alien invasion, traveling to the future using a time machine, or giving life to a scientist’s creation by means of galvanism. SF is often difficult to define and for that purpose acts as an umbrella to other subgenres. The list of definitions of SF may be endless but for this paper, I will focus on Ray Bradbury’s definition which states the following:

“Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us. So you have a ricochet vision, a ricochet that enables you to have fun with it, instead of being self-conscious and superintellectual” 

Having related his definition to the tale of Medusa this well-known writer notes these works don’t necessarily have to follow science to a tee. There is room for “fun,” and there is room for mistake. Outbreak contains both scientific-related instances and measures taken for the spread of a viral disease, as well as the exaggerated truth we are used to seeing in Hollywood films. It is a film that is on Netflix’s most viewed due to our current pandemic. People have become curious by way of movies to see what insight they may contain about a virus.

The film, Outbreak was directed by Wolfgang Peterson and is loosely based on the nonfiction book “The Hot Zone,” written by Richard Preston in 1994. The movie tells the story of a virus outbreak. It begins on a United States Army base in the African jungle where the soldiers are taken over by the disease called Motaba, which causes a deadly fever and other symptoms. The US government decides to destroy the killer virus by dropping a bomb onto the camp. Nearly three decades later it returns and an Army Virologist, Colonel Daniels is sent to Africa to investigate. There is a conflict between Daniels and his superior about his fear of the virus spreading. Hell breaks loose after a monkey who carries the virus is brought into the States from Africa and is stolen by one of the workers at the animal testing lab and infects the man who had taken her.

Ironically enough a Weekly Report from the CDC, reported an Ebola outbreak that occurred months after the film was released in theatres.

“On May 6, 1995, CDC was notified by health authorities and the U.S. Embassy in Zaire of an outbreak of viral hemorrhagic fever in the Kikwit area of Bandundu region, Zaire. On May 10, testing of blood specimens from ill patients confirmed that the outbreak was caused by Ebola virus.”

Given that pandemics or viral outbreaks are something we as a human race are presently dealing with and have dealt with in the past it was fairly easy to spot commonalities of the measures taken to prevent Motaba and COVID-19 from spreading. We currently being told to follow Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines which include: social distancing, staying indoors, placing cities around the globe on lockdown, to wear personal protective equipment such as face masks, gloves, etc. Outbreak uses valid science and proper procedures to avoid further spread like the techniques we are using today.  

Much like the scientists in the film, we see on television our doctors and nurses (and our neighbors) wearing face masks and body covers when they are around the infected. They also use contact tracing to find the point of origin of the virus. Contact tracing is disease control measure used to prevent further spread of COVID-19. It is a process in which an infected person works with public health staff to recall everyone they came in contact with during the timeframe they may have been infected. The staff then reach out to those who were exposed and inform them of the potential threat they face, while educating and suggesting ways to stop further spread. In Outbreak, we see the virus being traced it to the loading dock where a man had contracted the virus, to the pet store where the monkey was brought to be sold, then the theatre where people were informed of potential infection and were advised to quarantine. Later the government also places the entire town of Cedar Creek under lockdown to prevent the spread to anywhere else in the country. 

Also similar to the likes of COVID-19, Motaba has a zoonotic origin. Meaning it’s an infectious disease that is caused by bacteria passed on from an animal to a human being. The novel Coronavirus, was discovered when a cluster of pneumonia-like cases turned up in Wuhan, China in December 2019. While there are few scenarios scientists created on the origin of COVID, an article from the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s EurekAlert! states the following:

“The researchers proposed bats as the most likely reservoir for SARS-CoV-2 as it is very similar to a bat coronavirus. There are no documented cases of direct bat-human transmission, however, suggesting that an intermediate host was likely involved between bats and humans.”

The Motaba virus however originated in the African born monkey named Betsy who had been smuggled into America after the US military returned from their investigation. The mentioned article also quotes a leading researcher Josie Goulding, Ph.D., saying that scientists had concluded COVID-19 was the outcome of natural evolution and reassured the press that it was not an apart of any intentional scientific experiment or as the article states: “deliberate genetic engineering.” This contrasts to Outbreak since the American Government, although it is not said they created Motaba, they were well aware of its existence and had kept it locked away under tight security for means of biological weapon.

The way the viruses spread is another trait the two share. Both Mutuba and COVID-19 are easily and sustainably spread between people, which means it is able to go from one person to another without stopping. They both may be contracted through respiratory droplets from an infected person – by coughing, sneezing, or even simply talking. 

Although it follows some of the necessary precautions for a situation of that matter, Outbreak also holds a warped, fictional view of reality. For instance, the militarized reaction to the spread of the disease. The small town, Cedar Creek, California had been placed under lockdown with armed guards preventing its residents from leaving. Not to mention the government’s “Operation Clean Sweep,” which was a plan to bomb the town and it’s population to destroy the virus and prevent the public from finding out about their biological weapon. This is not the first of biological weapons or warfare we have seen in SF. In James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain,” published in Galaxy Magazine in March 1969, a doctor travels the world and intentionally spreads a killer disease that will kill the human race. Not even the investigators that captured Dr. Ain survived his virus. Although it has been “ruled out” that COVID-19 started from an animal, seeing how we have reacted and the way the Motaba virus was handled in Outbreak, raises the concern that as a society we are not prepared for such terror – whether such virus is manmade or not. 

Save the helicopter fight scenes, the all too convenient discovery of the monkey who was the point of origin of the virus, and the fact that they were able to get the antiserum back to the town in the span of all but a day; Outbreak’s storyline proves to be a reasonable take on widespread disease. And thus, leads me to believe it is a work of Science Fiction. It mixes both truth and exaggeration that doesn’t quite seem far off from the reality we are living today. Now if only we had an outstanding hero, such as Dustin Hoffman, to swoop in on his piloted helicopter with the cure.

Cited Sources

  1.  Bradbury, Ray, “Ray Bradbury: The Science of Science Fiction.” By Arthur Unger. The Christian Science Monitor 13 Nov. 1980. n.p. Web. 10 May 2014.
  2. “The COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic has a natural origin, scientists say—Scripps Research’s analysis of public genome sequence data from SARS‑CoV‑2 and related viruses found no evidence that the virus was made in a laboratory or otherwise engineered”. EurekAlert!. Scripps Research Institute. 17 March 2020. 
  3. “Update: Outbreak of Ebola Viral Hemorrhagic Fever – Zaire, 1995”. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 44 (20): 399. May 26, 1995.
  4. “Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19)”. World Health Organization (WHO). 17 April 2020. Archived from the original on 14 May 2020. 
  5. Huang C, Wang Y, Li X, Ren L, Zhao J, Hu Y, et al. (February 2020). “Clinical features of patients infected with 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China”. Lancet. 395 (10223): 497–506.