OUTBREAK (Warner Bros., R), the new biomedical disaster thriller, is about a mysterious and deadly new virus that’s been carried into the U.S. by a rather cute-looking African monkey. The bug, Motaba, spreads more easily than the common cold and kills its victims with frightening efficiency (they die within 24 hours). Even Col. Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman), a veteran Army medical researcher who specializes in the containment of dangerous viruses, has never encountered anything quite so lethal. The early sections of the movie are creepy and exciting. There’s a terrific, chainlike episode in which we see the various ways the virus gets passed along. The monkey, stolen from an animal-quarantine facility, spits water on his abductor, who then greets his girlfriend at the airport with a deadly kiss. A researcher, sprayed with a victim’s diseased blood, attends a movie, where he coughs germs into the air, contaminating everyone in the audience. In Outbreak, the spread of the (fictional) Motaba virus isn’t quite a metaphor for AIDS (it leaps about far too readily), yet there’s no doubt that the movie is exploiting the antiseptic, don’t-stand-so-close-to-me anxieties of the AIDS era. At its best, the film digs into our primal terror of contamination, as in a scene where Sam’s colleague (Kevin Spacey) accidentally rips his space-age safety suit, exposing himself to lethal germs. Even the main romantic subplot plays, in its way, off this fear: It’s about how Sam and the ex-wife he still loves, Robby (Rene Russo), who is also a disease researcher, have learned-emotionally, at least-to stop touching each other. The irony is that Outbreak, for all its lurid finesse, ends up leaving us more dazed than terrified. The film seems to hurtle forward as relentlessly- and impersonally-as the disease itself. The camera never stops moving, rushing through hospitals, futuristic research laboratories, and shadowy military bunkers; the actors toss off their techno-wisecracks like overly caffeinated grad students. And the action keeps darting around-from boats to helicopters, from the jungles of Zaire to the sunny hills of Cedar Creek, a Northern California town of 2,600 in which the disease begins its exponential spread. There is, of course, a dastardly governmental cover-up. There is also an elaborate hunt for the monkey, which, because it’s the disease’s host (i.e., it’s carrying the virus but isn’t infected), has lifesaving antibodies in its bloodstream. At the White House, a presidential aide warns that the Motaba victims ”are not statistics, ladies and gentlemen. They’re flesh and blood!” In essence, though, the victims we see in Outbreak are statistics; most of them barely even get a scene. The picture is too busy coasting on the panicky atmosphere of this epidemic, milking it for generic action- and conspiracy-movie high jinks, to get very far inside its shivery horror. The director, Wolfgang Petersen, first drew attention for his Teutonically ponderous submarine epic, Das Boot (1981), and then came to Hollywood, where he made a series of lackluster pictures and finally broke through with In the Line of Fire, the Clint Eastwood presidential-assassination thriller he directed with brooding precision. Outbreak marks the first time that Petersen’s nervous system seems fully Americanized-that is, wired. Like the recent nonfiction best-seller The Hot Zone, the movie pushes its veneer of journalistic topicality. It keeps shouting: This could really happen! In essence, though, Outbreak is just an update of all those ’50s sci-fi schlockers in which small towns were attacked by spores and blobs and other omnivorous forces. Hoffman is in good, tense form. His Sam is a reluctant crusader who valiantly faces off against his superiors: Donald Sutherland, obscenely pink- cheeked and smug as the key military plotter, and Morgan Freeman, as a by- the-book officer whose poker face conceals divided loyalties. Yet even Hoffman’s rascally humanism gets squashed in the mechanically engineered against-the-clock showdown, which transforms this prickly thriller into one more hardware-heavy ride. I mean, does a movie about a killer virus actually need two climactically farfetched aerial chase sequences? For today’s filmmakers, the addiction to kinetic overkill has become a disease in itself. B-

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