The film focuses on an outbreak of a fictional Ebola-like virus, Motaba, in Zaire and later in a small town in the United States. It is primarily set in the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the fictional town of Cedar Creek, California. Outbreak's plot speculates how far military and civilian agencies might go to contain the spread of a deadly, contagious disease.
The film, released on March 10, 1995, was a box-office success and Spacey won two awards for his performance. A real-life outbreak of the Ebola virus was occurring in Zaire when the film was released.
A virus called Motaba causing a deadly fever is discovered in the African jungle in 1967. To keep the virus a secret, U.S. Army officers Donald McClintock and William Ford destroy the army camp where soldiers were infected.
In 1995, the virus resurfaces in Zaire. Colonel Sam Daniels, a USAMRIID virologist, is sent to investigate. He and his crew—Lieutenant Colonel Casey Schuler and new recruit Major Salt—gather information and return to the United States. Daniels asks his superior, (now) Brigadier General William Ford, to issue an alert but Ford tells Daniels the virus is unlikely to spread.
Betsy, a white-headed capuchin monkey (a host species for the virus), is smuggled into the United States. When James "Jimbo" Scott—an employee of the Biotest animal-holding facility—steals Betsy and brings her to Cedar Creek, California, to sell on the black market, he is infected. Jimbo fails to sell Betsy to Rudy Alvarez, a pet-store owner who wanted a male for a customer. Rudy is also infected, and "Jimbo" releases the female monkey in the woods. He develops symptoms on a flight to Boston and infects his girlfriend, Alice. They are hospitalized, and Dr. Roberta Keough—a CDC scientist and Daniels' ex-wife—investigates their illness. Jimbo, Alice, and Rudy die, but Keough determines that no one else in Boston was infected.
Technicians at a Cedar Creek hospital, including Henry, run tests on Rudy's blood; Henry is infected when he accidentally breaks a vial of Rudy's blood. It is later found that the virus mutated into a strain capable of spreading like influenza, and a number of people are exposed in a movie theater. Daniels learns about the infection and flies to Cedar Creek against Ford's orders, joining Keough's team with Schuler and Salt. As they begin a search for the host animal, the U.S. Army quarantines the town and imposes martial law. Schuler is infected when his suit tears, and Keough accidentally sticks herself with a contaminated needle. Ford provides an experimental serum to treat the sick (which fails because of the mutation), and Daniels realizes that he was aware of the virus before the outbreak. He confronts Ford, who admits that he withheld information to cover the fact that the original Motaba strain was purposefully engineered by the military as a bioweapon; the 1967 outbreak in Africa had in fact been a test-run of the virus, which subsequently infected the local monkey population despite Ford's and McClintock's attempt to halt its spread and cover their actions.
Daniels learns about Operation Clean Sweep, a plan for the military to bomb Cedar Creek which has been approved by the President; now-Major General Donald McClintock plans to use the operation to conceal the virus's existence. To prevent Daniels from finding a cure, McClintock has him arrested for carrying the virus. Daniels escapes, and he and Salt fly a helicopter to the ship which carried Betsy. Daniels obtains a picture of Betsy and releases it to the media; Mrs. Jeffries realizes that her daughter Kate has been playing with Betsy in their yard and calls the CDC. Daniels and Salt arrive at the Jeffries' house, and Salt tranquilizes Betsy after Kate coaxes her out of hiding. When he learns from Daniels about Betsy's capture, Ford delays the bombing.
On their return flight, Daniels and Salt are chased by McClintock in another helicopter, and Salt fires two rockets into the trees to trick McClintock into thinking that they crashed. In Cedar Creek, Salt mixes Betsy's antibodies with Ford's serum to create an antiserum; although Schuler has died, they save Keough. McClintock returns to base and resumes Operation Clean Sweep, refusing to listen to Ford (who wants to cancel it).
Daniels and Salt fly a helicopter in the path of the bomber, which is commanded by a pilot codenamed Sandman One. With Ford's help, Daniels persuades Sandman One and his co-pilot to detonate the bomb over water and spare the town. Before McClintock can order another bombing, Ford relieves him of his command and arrests him for withholding information from the president. Daniels and Keough reconcile, and Cedar Creek's residents are cured.
Scenes in "Cedar Creek" were filmed in Ferndale, California, where tanks and helicopters were a common feature of daily life during nearly two months of filming. Other locations used were Dugway Proving Ground and Kauai.
Outbreak topped the U.S. box-office list its opening weekend with earnings of $13,420,387, and spent three weeks at number one before Tommy Boy's release. The film, which grossed $67,659,560 domestically and $122,200,000 internationally, was a commercial success.
Outbreak received mixed reviews. According to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 59% of 44 critics gave the film a positive review for a rating average of 5.6 out of 10.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars, calling Outbreak's premise "one of the great scare stories of our time, the notion that deep in the uncharted rain forests, deadly diseases are lurking, and if they ever escape their jungle homes and enter the human bloodstream, there will be a new plague the likes of which we have never seen." Rita Kempley of The Washington Post also enjoyed the film's plot: "Outbreak is an absolute hoot thanks primarily to director Wolfgang Petersen's rabid pacing and the great care he brings to setting up the story and its probability."
David Denby wrote for New York magazine that although the opening scenes were well-done, "somewhere in the middle ... Outbreak falls off a cliff" and becomes "lamely conventional". Janet Maslin of The New York Times also found the film's subject compelling but its treatment ineffective: "The film's shallowness also contributes to the impression that no problem is too thorny to be solved by movie heroics."New York Film Critics Circle Awards: Kevin Spacey – Best Supporting Actor (Won)
Society of Texas Film Critics Awards: Kevin Spacey – Best Supporting Actor (Won) – Also includes Spacey's work in Se7en and The Usual Suspects