Watching Outbreak in the time of CoVid-19

outbreak-dustin-hoffman
outbreak-dustin-hoffman

Outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics, oh my!

I recently rewatched the 1994 disaster film Outbreak, because 1. I always loved that movie, 2. kind of dig diseases (I like science, okay?), and 3. there’s a real global pandemic happening right now.

You’ve probably heard about that.

Also, 4. I needed to get Peetimes for Outbreak, because I’m not the only person currently watching or rewatching that film, and some people like to use RunPee with old movies. It’s up on Netflix now if you’re interested; you can even host a Netflix Watch Party. That is, if you and your Netflix friends have a strong stomach.


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I say that because while it’s not a horror movie, it’s a bit scary right now in the massive wake of CoVid-19. Keep in mind the virus in Outbreak is a Marburg variant they call Motaba, which is like Ebola. It kills you by replicating until it “explodes” your cells — all your cells — and in essence (as the movie eloquently puts it), liquefying your organs. While Outbreak uses mostly discretionary shots to show the virus’ effects, it’s still as nasty as it sounds.

Motaba also has a 100% death rate, is airborne, and moves extremely quickly through the human population.

To be clear, the novel Coronavirus we’re experiencing is nothing like Motaba, except in the both-being-a-virus sense. CoVid-19 has a low kill rate (between 1-3%), is NOT airborne (it spreads via droplet dispersal, which is very different), and while also highly contagious, moves slowly through populations (with a 2 week latency period).

This is both good for us…and less good. 

The good news about CoVid-19 vs Outbreak’s Motaba Virus

  • CoVid-19 has far less deaths (by percentage), and actual patient recovery is possible, frequently with no medical intervention needed.
  • The novel coronavirus doesn’t kill you directly — complications from respiratory distress and organ failure kill you (small consolation it seems, but still very fortunate in that we can, with enough respirators, save most badly ill patients).
  • The real virus is not airborne! (Want to know the difference between airborne transmission and droplet dispersal? Droplets fall to the ground quite quickly after someone sneezes or coughs. In a true airborne situation, the virus attaches to dust and pollen, and stays floating in the air, virulent as long as it can survive outside of a host. This is exponentially, nightmarishly worse than our situation.)
  • Nobody will be bleeding from their eyes.
  • The government won’t firebomb your town to contain CoVid-19.
  • Outbreak is a work of fiction.

The bad news about CoVid-19 vs the Outbreak virus

  • Since Motaba works so quickly, it’s a lot easier to trace from patient to patient. With CoVid-19, you can infect a lot of people in the 14 days the illness takes to present symptoms. This is why it’s such a nightmare for the world to flatten the curve.
  • Since Motaba kills so quickly, so completely (100% death rate, remember?), it’s a lot easier to contain. Essentially, this (fake) virus kills itself, by destroying every human host within three days. CoVid-19 doesn’t kill itself off, making it a virus with longevity. CoVid-19 might be with us for years — or forever. It might become as ubiquitous as the flu (which is itself part of a suite of coronaviruses).
  • The CoVid-19 disease is pandemic (as in world-wide), instead of a outbreak (limited to a hot zone) or an epidemic (limited to one geographical area or country).
  • CoVid-19 is real.

Also, the Outbreak virus originated in Africa via monkeys. Our new virus is more like a scenario from the 2011 flick Contagion, using a bat-based vector — both originating from China.  In both reality and Outbreak, illegal smuggling of animals was involved (that monkey in Outbreak; a poached pangolin in China). And in case you’re wondering, in Contagion no illegal activity was involved, but someone didn’t wash their hands after handling raw meat. This is never a good idea.

Now, go wash your hands again.

Disease Expert Breaks Down Pandemic Scenes From Film & TV

Contagion Cast Creates CoVid-19 PSAs

Does Contagion have an Extra Scene: A Chilling End Note

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6 thoughts on “Watching Outbreak in the time of CoVid-19”

  1. Rob Williams Author

    I think I’ve found my quarantine movie buddy! Outbreak is one of my go to, can’t be bothered thinking too hard, something cosy and familiar films. Maybe we should all come up with a Desert Island Discs type selection. You’re stranded on a desert island with a solar powered DVD player and eight discs… which ones do you take? Outbreak would definitely be one of my choices! And Contact… and Runaway Jury!

  2. Rob! You’re my new best friend!

    I’m going to do a legitimate rewatch review of Outbreak later this week, but I agree, a desert-island list would be fun right now. And like you, Contact is on my list. Dan and I bonded over Contact… 20 years ago (has it been that long? sheesh)

    Send me ([email protected]) your short list, please. I’m going to ask/pester everyone to add to this. Its’s a great idea. Especially now: a great time to re-examine the movies that shaped us and are eminently rewatchable.

    The best part of Outbreak is where we see the people walk from BL1-4, and how each room is sooo different than the last, listing onscreen which microbes fall into which category. Salmonella is scary enough… but as a BL1, it’s nothing compared to Hanta (which I used to work with in college, and that’s another post in the making).

    Hoffman really has great chemistry with everyone here, doesn’t he? He puts Freeman to shame, actually. What are your favorite scenes?

  3. Do you guys remember a movie that began with, or showed fairly early on, peope watching a movie in a theater, and someone coughs? It shows the virus (?) spreading through the air. Help, please. Thanks!

  4. Rob Williams Author

    There is a scene like that in “Outbreak”; at 0:41:13 a couple walk into a cinema and there’s an on screen message ‘State Theatre. Cedar Creek, California.’ Then it cuts to them in the audience and the guy starts coughing. The camera then focuses on the atomised particles that he coughs up and follows them around a bit until it pulls out just in time to see the bits going into a woman’s mouth as she’s laughing.

    Is this what you’re thinking of?

  5. Thanks, Rob. Yeah, that’s the one. It’s extra scary watching that now.

    Which is why the theaters are closed. 🙁

    With all seats at AMC being reserved now, they could certainly regulate/enforce social distancing.

    A few movies are going to try this in July. It’s my next article to write. I sincerely hope it goes well.

  6. “I must not fear.
    Fear is the mind-killer.
    Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
    I will face my fear.
    I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
    And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
    Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

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