Plague movies bear striking similarities -- A comparison of ''Outbreak,'' ''The Andromeda Strain,'' and ''Panic in the Streets''

By Glenn Kenny
Updated August 04, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Plague movies bear striking similarities

Any mainstream movie exploring the prospect of a ghastly finale for humanity needs to hold out as much hope as it does horror. Perhaps that’s why the few movies that face head-on the possibility of modern-day plagues bear such striking similarities. In fact, it would have been cheaper to make the new-to-video medical thriller Outbreak by splicing together selected reels of Panic in the Streets and The Andromeda Strain.

Director Elia Kazan’s tough, trim Panic is a kind of virus noir, in which the city’s elusive underworld brings a deadly plague into New Orleans. Just as Outbreak‘s obsessive protagonist battles military bureaucracy to do his job, here a valiant health official (Richard Widmark) has to contend with a hardened police captain (Paul Douglas) in order to track down anyone who’s had contact with a slain smuggler who transmitted the disease. The bullheaded murderer (Jack Palance) thinks the police are asking about his victim because the guy was ”carrying” something big — which, in a sense, he was.

A crashed satellite is the carrier in The Andromeda Strain, and here an argumentative group of scientists gather at a high-tech government facility to analyze a horrendous alien disease that turns its victims’ blood into powder. Andromeda has more sci-fi trappings than either Panic or Outbreak. But director Robert Wise, adapting Michael Crichton’s best-selling 1969 novel, handles the tech stuff matter-of-factly, albeit in a detailed way that’s earned the movie a reputation as overlong. Things start cooking when Wise gets into his (underappreciated) specialty — creating excruciating, real-time suspense — once it’s revealed that the alien killer hasn’t been contained in the small New Mexican town where the satellite landed. Outbreak‘s beat-the-clock climax has a comparable urgency, and whaddya know? Both films bring in bombs to up the paranoia ante.

Outbreak‘s frantic search for the virus carrier derives from Panic, only here the culprit is a very cute monkey smuggled out of an import holding facility. A pointless romantic subplot also echoes Panic‘s annoying domestic story line — only, since these are the ’90s, Outbreak‘s colleagues (Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo) argue about their divorce, whereas Widmark and Barbara Bel Geddes squabble over having a second child. Outbreak‘s worries about germ warfare echo a minor plot point in The Andromeda Strain, in which three of the four scientists are shocked to discover that their job site is also a biological weapons lab.

While Panic features a few reliable big names and Andromeda a small, deliberately uncharismatic ensemble, the cast of Outbreak is strictly all-star: Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Donald Sutherland. At first, the valiant-doctor role seems distinctly unsuited to Hoffman’s idiosyncratic gifts (he’s more often cast as antihero than hero). He makes the part work for him by adopting the overtones of some past roles to specific scenes here: With ex-wife and colleague Russo, he does Ted Kramer (Kramer vs. Kramer); his confrontations with his sympathetic but taciturn superior (Morgan Freeman) play like the arguments Michael Dorsey has with his agent in Tootsie; and his overall earnestness and incorrigibility recall his turn as Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men.

Besides its star power, what Outbreak has that the two earlier pictures don’t are allusions to the possible threat posed by the Ebola virus and a very potent subtext, AIDS, that’s never mentioned in the movie. Whatever your opinions on the AIDS epidemic and what’s being done to combat it, there’s no denying that Outbreak carries a faint whiff of opportunism; this opportunism gives the movie an irritatingly nudging quality that’s absent from the scary entertainments of Panic and Andromeda. Nevertheless, Outbreak is pretty strong stuff. And if screenwriters Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool provide a few too many pages, director Wolfgang Petersen doesn’t waste a frame. His efficient handling of the material suits the confines of a TV screen, even though his wide-screen compositions have been compromised on this panned-and-scanned tape (a laserdisc version, also available, is letterboxed). While Panic in the Streets and The Andromeda Strain exploit a (perhaps false) innocence we’ll never see again, Outbreak exploits a fear that’s a little too close to home.

Outbreak: B
The Andromeda Strain: B+
Panic in the Streets: B+