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Cinema Peer Review: Outbreak

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The 1995 disaster flick “Outbreak” added viruses to the list of villainous forces of nature that would forever haunt the silver screen. Dustin Hoffman leads a ragtag group of scientists aiming to find a cure for the deadly (and fictional) Motaba virus before the U.S. government bombs a small town off the map to contain the infection. But the movie’s heroes, while not straying too outrageously far from actual scientific practices, make some dramatic leaps that wouldn’t be possible in the real world.

Sufferers of a real-world Motaba outbreak would have been doomed by a ticking clock. In “Outbreak,” Hoffman and his crew manage to capture the monkey producing the crucial antibodies to a mutated form of Motaba and whip up a serum in a matter of days. But in the real world, scientists would probably need at least a few months or even years to pinpoint the right antibodies and produce a cure. The quarantined town of Cedar Creek would’ve been toast.

Just how does the Motaba virus measure up to its real-world inspiration, the Ebola virus? Like Motaba, Ebola can jump from infected animals (including monkeys, but also via bats and some antelopes) to humans. Unlike Motaba, a mutation that causes the virus to become an airborne infection has, thankfully, not yet manifested in Ebola, meaning that outbreaks of this virus can’t spread as rapidly as the flu.

There are a few minor scientific quibbles with the movie, not least of which are some questionable wardrobe choices. “Outbreak” shows government researchers working in crisp white lab coats. While the pristine lab coat is a universal signifier for “scientist,” used from movies to New Yorker cartoons, it’s one that makes real researchers roll their eyes a little.

“Those spotless lab coats make it clear that they have never been used,” St. Mary’s College of Maryland biologist Samantha Elliott wrote in her own review of “Outbreak”. “My own lab coat is rather wrinkled and spattered with the brightly colored dyes that I use in my experiments.”

Another minor scientific inaccuracy perpetrated in the name of narrative clarity is when Hoffman deduces that the Motaba virus has mutated by looking at a sample under a microscope. The vast majority of viruses are way too small to be seen with light microscopy—the only real exception are members of the family Poxviridae, a group that includes smallpox and cowpox (but not chicken pox, which is a herpes virus!) If the Motaba virus is as small as the Ebola virus, you could only see it in detail with an electron microscope.

And even if you could see it with a light microscope, you likely wouldn’t be able to tell that the virus had mutated by glancing at its shape. Viral mutations are much too subtle to detect visually; scientists typically have to sequence the genetic code and compare it to other strains to spot the differences.

One more quibble: the Motaba virus supposedly originated in the African nation of Zaire. But the primate starring in “Outbreak” is a capuchin monkey—found only in South America.

Ultimately, the fatal flaw in “Outbreak” that drags down its Cinema Peer Review rating is the sunny resolution. Enough minor characters and townspeople die to give the movie some dramatic heft, but by the time the credits roll most of the town has been safely inoculated (and recovering!). Meanwhile, our real-world science can’t hope to deliver anything that miraculous. We haven’t managed yet to develop a cure or even a treatment for Ebola virus; all that sufferers can really hang their hopes on is fluid transfers and blood transfusions. If Ebola started turning into something as virulent and contagious as Motaba, we’d probably consider ourselves lucky if the casualties were confined to every last resident of one California town.

 Accuracy rating: 2.5 out of 5 diseased monkeys

"outbreak" rating
“outbreak” rating

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