Like the rest of you, I am holed up in my office at home because of the novel coronavirus, and just to make myself more panicked I decided to watch both Contagion and Outbreak in a double feature and lived to tell you which one I think is the scariest.
Contagion is streaming on Cinemax for subscribers and Outbreak is available on Netflix. Both can be rented on Prime.
As you would expect at a time in pandemic world history–the likes recent generations have never seen before–Contagion and Outbreak have become popular re-watches not only for their depictions of real-life horror but to see how a pandemic actually happens and I can say both movies are pretty spot-on as far as protocol, but there is a standout that offers a more realistic, and scarier, scenario.
Let’s start with Outbreak, a big-budget potboiler with more Academy Award nominees per capita than a single section of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. We’ve got Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman, Renne Russo, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Donald Sutherland.
Hoffman plays Colonel Sam Daniels a ballsy member of the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) who’s investigating an icky viral outbreak in Zaire.
The virus-carrying capuchin monkey from Friends is abducted for the black market but manages to escape into the California redwoods but not before infecting his warm-hearted captor (Patrick Dempsey) who has already infected a pet store owner.
A sneeze in a movie theater from an infected victim sprays droplets into the air which land in everyone’s popcorn thus a localized pandemic begins.
Outbreak is an action picture to be sure. When you consider the long list of action stars reportedly considered for the role Hoffman plays–Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, and Sylvester Stallon–this 1995 movie feels like Die Hard with the flu.
The movie doesn’t go too far beyond a small town pandemic in the same sort of way Arachnophobia did with spiders, but the effects of the illness are pretty disturbing with bleeding eyes, purulent facial pustules, and Joker-like death masks.
Contagion, on the other hand, gets too real in some spots, even mimicking what the world is going through right now with coronavirus. It has even more A-list stars to tell the story including Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, and an unsettling cameo by Gwyneth Paltrow.
Like our current situation, the “novel” disease called MEV-1 is traced back to China. Both films explore the possibility that both germs are a part of a government coverup in which they would be used as bioweapons.
Contagion is a bit more modern in its storytelling too. Made in 2011, there are modern conveniences not really seen in Outbreak, so touching your cellphone can be a dangerous habit.
Where Contagion surpasses Outbreak is in its depiction of spreading the disease globally. The trail of the virus gets screentime by way of close-ups of an infected person breathing on someone else in a crowded casino, a man touching a handrail inside a public bus or an infected hospitality staff member who has touched everything in a hotel room.
Just like the headlines of today, there are shots of empty airports, unoccupied streets, and grocery store runs that leave the shelves picked bare.
Both films race toward a cure, Outbreak getting there a bit sooner thanks to a hasty script, Contagion lingers a bit taking us through public disorder, a holistic shill who says he can cure the world, and terrorists who try to steal the vaccine at the source.
If you want a movie where the action takes center stage then Outbreak gets high marks for stunts involving helicopters and animal actors. The film serves up some realistic warnings about the spreading of diseases but loses some of its oomph when the female lead (spoiler) gets sick but unlike other victims, looks fabulous.
Contagion is more aggressive when it comes to storytelling. There is really no action sequences, but it delves into things people are experiencing now amid the COVID-19 pandemic; people profiting off fear, social distancing and the importance of washing your hands.
There is a montage sequence at the end titled “Day 1,” which takes us through how patient zero (Paltrow) was infected and just that piece of film alone sent chills down my spine.
Approach these films as cautionary tales; they both score well as pseudo-educational stories about the spread of disease. If you want pure entertainment, go with Outbreak, but if you like a little bit more paranoia in your isolation, go with Contagion.
Feel-Good Spoiler Alert
The good news in both films is that they find a cure for their respective diseases, so let’s ride this out, let the scientists do their work and enjoy a little me-time in the meantime.
Here are some helpful links related to COVID-19: