Viral Twist and Shout
“You have to love its simplicity. It’s one-billionth our size and it’s beating us.” — Sam Daniels
Ah, the nineties. It was a simpler time, an innocent time. Before texting, tweens, and tweeting. When men were men and phones plugged into walls. Original ideas were so rare that sometimes studios took the most promising pitch and made two films just to be sure. They hit you like double tap headshots of blockbuster: Wyatt Earp! Volcanoes! Asteroids! And the year we found out that it was actually Ebola that would kill us all, we almost got two simultaneous virus films. Fox and Ridley Scott tried to make Hot Zone but Robert Redford and Jody Foster bickered about the script until they both quit. Just to make all of you aspiring writers drink more: the screenwriter hired to adapt Hot Zone from a book to a screenplay was paid $500,000. You know what’s holding us back? We keep using all those other keys instead of “control”, “c” and “v.”
In any case, Outbreak won the race to theaters and featured one of the most talented casts ever assembled for a middling popcorn flick. They managed to cast Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Kevin Spacey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland, thus setting the world record for number of Oscars per minutes of suck. They also retroactively pulled off the unintentional hilarity of Patrick Dempsey at the absolute nadir of his post-teen heartthrob, pre-McDreamy career. If they’d just included Kevin Bacon, his game would need two less degrees.
Outbreak starts out with an intriguing first act that creeps along like a horror movie, moving with absolute certainty towards that inevitable point when a super virus starts liquefying internal organs en masse. The second act starts to trip over itself as the virus is apparently identified and contained within a small town on the California coast. The third act becomes a ludicrous chase flick of army guys in helicopters, culminating in moralizing as awkward as the big dance at a summer camp for kids with crippling social anxiety.
The mistake is in making Donald Sutherland an unlikable and unreasonable antagonist instead of the virus. Here’s a lesson for all scriptwriters: flip your film on its head and make the antagonist the protagonist while you’re writing it. Write and rewrite draft after draft of the script until the antagonist makes just as much sense as the protagonist. That’s the point at which we as an audience care about the decisions of the characters, when we agonize over the moral quandary with the protagonist instead of just rooting against the antagonist.
When they work, twists in a story can rip your guts out and show them to you, make you reexamine everything that came before. In a bad story, the twist is just a coward’s way out of the implications of the story. It causes you to conclude that everything that happened before simply didn’t matter. Oh how scary, the bad general wants to kill a bunch of Americans and keep the virus as a biological weapon. Yeah, OK Darth Vader, whatever. You know what’s really scary? A virus that is airborne and kills everyone who gets it within 24 hours. But you know, I can see where Donald Sutherland’s soulless eyes could be scary too.
It’s not a creative twist to rip the story in an unexpected direction with a straw man antagonist to worry about instead of the original actual horror. It’s like the original script had this psychotic unstoppable virus and the writer scared himself shitless and wrote a cure and an asshole fall guy to make himself sleep better. The narrative structure of the film is essentially:
1. Eek! A killer virus!
2. Whew, good thing we’ve figured out a plan for dealing with it.
3. Eek! A psycho general!
While the lesson that sociopathic generals with hard-ons for bio-warfare and firebombing are the real danger may be a good story in another movie, it’s not the story that this movie set out to tell. In other words, if you make a movie called Outbreak, I’m thinking that the real bad guy should be the fucking outbreak.
The story problems remind me of season 2 of “24,” in which terrorists try to nuke Los Angeles. Around the two-thirds mark of the season, the nuke is safely blown up in the desert and the evidence that a bunch of Middle Eastern states conspired to make it happen turns out to be a forgery by an evil cabal in the American government. Twist! It’s the easy way out: evil cabals are easy for television to deal with, but the actual moral implications of what the government should do in response to a nuclear attack by a foreign country is really hard to handle. But the having balls to try is the stuff of truly great stories. Outbreak backs away from the tough and interesting drama by refusing to answer the question: What if they can’t find a cure?
In real life, they don’t find a cure in time. Look up Ebola or Marburg or the half dozen other hemorrhagic fevers that explode out of the African jungle and lay waste to a village in a week every few years. Finding the host animal and producing an antiserum from its blood in 20 minutes isn’t even throwing up a hail mary, it’s kicking a field goal from your own goal line through a blizzard with only two players on the field, neither of whom is the kicker. Oh, and if you miss the field goal, everyone in the stands will die.
The horror science fiction story that they could have told in this movie would have been legendary. Screw having the virus nail a small and fundamentally quarantinable town in Northern California. Drop that fucker in downtown Los Angeles or Manhattan. Force the characters to make a truly agonizing decision. Make the situation so horrific that nuking the site from orbit seems to be the best moral choice available.
In short, if you really want viral apocalypse porn, just go back and re-read the first couple hundred pages of The Stand.
“Oh, Christ, guys, if you think I’m lying, drop the bomb. If you think I’m crazy, drop the bomb. But don’t drop the bomb just because you’re following orders!” -Sam Daniels
Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at www.burningviolin.com, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.