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DOOM AND DUMBER

For decades social psychologists, campus film historians and other pests have been cooking up elaborate theories about how the Z-grade giant insect flicks of the 1950s were really reflections of our deepest Cold War fears, or that the disaster-movie cycle of the 1970s, with its swarms of killer bees and apocalyptic earthquakes, represented some kind of Old Testament vengeance against the permissiveness of the previous decade.

These dime-store philosophers should have an absolute ball with Outbreak.
In this frantic, silly disaster/disease movie, a fatal African virus comes to America courtesy of a purloined monkey. Before you can say "gesundheit," German director Wolfgang Petersen has killed off half a dozen people in Boston, the entire population of a town in northern California is foaming at the mouth and dropping dead, and the rest of the world soon will be at risk. The big bad U.S. Army has an evil secret agenda of its own, of course. And when the virus suddenly mutates, panic and paranoia run rampant.

The movie's parallels to a culture absorbed with AIDS and a government that often looks like it couldn't care less are more than obvious. They're pounded home like coffin nails.

Not to worry, though. Dustin Hoffman will take care of everything. Doctor Dustin Hoffman. Army colonel Dustin Hoffman. All dolled up in a germ-proof yellow space suit with a little window in the front, so he can look out. In fact, all the best people are wearing the yellow isolation suits--estranged wife (and fellow scientist) Rene Russo; eager beaver Army major (and fellow scientist) Cuba Gooding Jr.; and, sometimes, even Army general (and fellow scientist) Morgan Freeman.

It would be nice to say that Hoffman, one of the finest movie actors of all, has brought some contagion of excitement to this update on everything from The Andromeda Strain to Alien. But he hasn't. What's more, this slight, quaver-voiced performer isn't very convincing as a rebellious military officer. The camouflage fatigues don't suit him, either.

Plot weakness? Suffice it to say that when this feverish movie runs out of anti-serums and crises in the emergency room, it falls back on a helicopter chase, then a game of chicken between a chopper and a bomber--while the stock military lunatic of the piece, Donald Sutherland, screams Hitleresque orders into a microphone.

Petersen earned international acclaim with the hard-nosed Nazi submarine drama Das Boot and Clint Eastwood's admiration with In the Line of Fire, so the generous of heart will take Outbreak as an aberration. Certainly the director got stuck with a story idea older than the black plague, turned into a cliche-ridden script by Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool.

As for the estimable Hoffman, here's hoping he'll take two aspirin, get a good night's rest and feel better in the morning about moving on.

 
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