Though Hollywood is often lauded for its punctuality in tackling social issues, that wasn't exactly the case when the AIDS epidemic hit in the '80s. It took mainstream Hollywood years and years to finally confront the issue with a major, star-driven vehicle, and that film was Jonathan Demme's 'Philadelphia' in 1993. But only two years later, 1995 would see another movie that dealt with the AIDS crisis in a more "palatable" way, by creating it's own imaginary virus (one clearly inspired by the Ebola scare of the early '90s), disguising it as a sci-fi thriller, and populating it with big-name stars to create a commercial entertainment. The word "AIDS" may never once be uttered throughout 'Outbreak,' but by exploring the social ramifications of the fictional disease, it is utterly implicit in the material.
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, 'Outbreak' stars Dustin Hoffman as Sam Daniels, an army virologist trying to stave off global biological meltdown after a rare killer virus from the jungles of Zaire has taken hold in a California community. It knows no boundaries, and its mortality rate is 100 percent. As the military and politicians discuss the ramifications of the virus, factions form, with some saying that the only way to stop its spread is to firebomb the town and everyone in it.
'Outbreak' tries to give us a bit of everything. There are the thriller elements, as we await the revelation as to how the virus operates and just how lethal it can be. There's a bit of action, with some expensive-looking sequences with zillions of extras running in all directions as funny guys in airtight spacesuits attempt to quell the masses. And of course, the obligatory romantic subplot, as the improbable couple of Hoffman and Rene Russo (as his ex-wife) find their strained love repaired when the virus hits close to home. Not since the enjoyable and underrated 'Deep Impact' have I seen a big-budget disaster flick try to weave together so many maudlin story threads into one big, sentimental mess of an end-of-the-world thriller.
I hate to use the word "fun" describing a movie about a killer virus that could wipe out millions of people, but that's exactly what 'Outbreak' becomes. It's clear from the beginning that the filmmakers are never going to go that far and really revel in the bloody mayhem the virus can wreak, and instead will give us one of those patented Hollywood endings where the cure is discovered just in the nick of time. (Oh, c'mon now, you didn't really think a major Warner Bros. movie was going to end in world destruction, did you?) So like the best made-for-TV disaster movies, the kick in 'Outbreak' is watching how the top-flight cast will chew the scenery while Petersen and his screenwriters invest even the hoariest of cliches with gusto.
What does give 'Outbreak' at least some gravity beyond mere paranoia entertainment, is its potency as an AIDS metaphor in the dress of the Ebola virus. The images of impending death and hysteria depicted in the film, albeit sanitized for the PG-13 audience (despite the film's R rating, the film never truly goes for the gut), packed a good deal of punch back in 1995 and are still affecting now. I wouldn't call 'Outbreak' a study in realism, but it does take a genuine stab at portraying the ensuing social and political hysteria in a believable way. 'Outbreak' is never more than the sum of its Hollywood parts, but its undercurrent of timely themes at least gives it more kick than your typically generic action-thriller.
Warner presents 'Outbreak' on a BD-25 single-layer disc in 1080p/VC-1 video (1.78:1). It's clear that this is not a catalog title of high importance to the studio, for not only is this a bare-bones disc, but the source doesn't appear to have been all that cleaned up since the last time the flick hit standard DVD.
This is a decent transfer. Positives are nice black levels, a generally clean print with only a few blemishes and appropriate film grain, and contrast that is nicely balanced. The image overall has a a realistic look, though it's not particularly detailed. There's flat and slightly soft look throughout, and shadow delineation borders on the poor -- darkest scenes are noticeably fuzzy and lacking in any visible fine texture. Colors are fine, with decent saturation though nothing really eye-popping. The encode is solid, with no obvious compression artifacts and only slight edge enhancement. This is a serviceable catalog release from Warner.
'Outbreak' has been upgraded to Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48kHz/16-bit), not that it matters much. The source is too limited here to benefit, and though 'Outbreak' sounds fine in TrueHD, there is no wow factor. (Note: Warner also provides Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround dubs and subtitles in English, French, Spanish and German, though not the Japanese listed on the back packaging.)
For a film produced in 1995, 'Outbreak' does sound above par for a film of this era. There are a few discrete effects (mostly in big scenes with screaming hordes of scared people, flying helicopters etc.), but true bursts of enveloping surround activity are rare. Subtle ambiance is also lacking. Dynamic range is decent, with fairly strong low bass and a sense of spaciousness to the upper range. Dialogue sounds pretty good as well, with clear tones and no balance issues. As with the video, the audio here is nothing more than perfectly adequate.
All of Warner's September 2 catalog releases (which also include 'Eraser,' 'Under Siege 2' and 'The Gauntlet) contain nary a single extra. 'Outbreak' is no different -- we don't even get a measly trailer. This may be part of the strategy for the studio's new discounted Blu-ray line.
'Outbreak' is a decent slice of early-'90s cinematic paranoia, though its mix of big stars, action and social commentary is often uneven. This Blu-ray is pretty nondescript, boasting fairly good video and audio, but absolutely zero supplements. It appears that Warner just threw 'Outbreak' out onto the marketplace to bump up its number of Blu-ray titles, this isn't really worth picking up unless you can get it at a sizable discount.