Somebody bleeds out within the opening five minutes of National Geographic’s The Hot Zone.
It’s not an important character, or really a character at all, but in less time than it would take you to microwave a batch of popcorn — eating anything richer while watching The Hot Zone would be a tremendous mistake — this fairly anonymous guy goes from sweaty and pale to covered in pustulant sores to filling an airplane vomit bag to the brim with bloody gunk.
If that sounds a little gross to you, consider it either your warning to avoid NatGeo’s take on The Hot Zone, which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival ahead of its May 27 cable premiere, or else your strong recommendation to tune in. Over its six-episode run, The Hot Zone fails to generate any meaningful gravity or more than scattered substance, but it nails a mood of mounting paranoia and the visceral impact of a solid, jump-in-the-dark horror movie.
Richard Preston’s best-seller of the same title was both wildly successful 25 years ago and notorious for the circuitous and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to adapt it for the big screen. Producer Lynda Obst stuck with the property and, with a team of writers including creator James V. Hart and Kelly Souders, Brian Peterson and Jeff Vintar, what’s airing on NatGeo is a reasonably straight-forward adaptation that has, sadly, lost absolutely none of its relevance. The book’s publication mined terror from introducing Ebola to a mainstream audience and a general preoccupation with the AIDS epidemic, while the miniseries was put into development in the middle of one Ebola outbreak and will premiere in the middle of another. Be freaked out and mindful both.
The story focuses primarily on an outbreak of an unknown virus among monkeys at a research facility in Reston, Virginia, in 1989. The case drew the attention of Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax (Julianna Margulies), researcher with the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, and her team of researchers including characters played by Topher Grace and Paul James. Dr. Jaax’s obsession with outbreak concerns her husband, Lt. Col. Jerry Jaax (Noah Emmerich), and several of her superiors, especially when she summons her mentor Dr. Wade Carter (Liam Cunningham), something of a renegade with alarmist tendencies and experiences with this “enemy” in other forms.
The 1989 narrative is intercut with Carter’s experiences in Africa in the 1970s, tracing a related virus in rural reaches of Zaire along with colleagues Travis Rhodes (James D’Arcy) and Melinda (Grace Gummer). It lays the foundation for a clash of styles and philosophies when Rhodes shows up at the Reston scene and tries to commandeer it for the CDC.
The scripts for the six episodes, with Sounders and Peterson as showrunners, aren’t bad. They’re actually very efficient. It’s all just quite rudimentary. Not a word is wasted. If something is mentioned, it’s going to be used. In every imaginable circumstance, one of our expert characters will be sharing the screen with a character who happens to be less knowledgeable than the expert, opening the door for frequent explanatory monologues. The pilot in particular feels like one basic walk-through after another. James’ Ben, for example, immediately announces that Peter (Grace’s character) is “the virus guy” (which makes sense since Peter Jahrling is a real figure from the book), so Ben becomes the recipient of a string of exposition. For no good reason, when Nancy Jaax goes into the Level 4 biohazard area, she decides to be accompanied by a new recruit (Lenny Platt) who has never experienced any of the containment protocols and, thus, allows Nancy to take us through step-by-step.
This is a strategy that lets The Hot Zone dump a ton of information on us at the expense of making half of its characters into narrative functionaries. The line between real people and TV composites becomes blurred and, with the actual history offering some restrictions — an Ebola outbreak did not, in fact, decimate the human population of the Eastern seaboard in 1989 — The Hot Zone maybe comes across more as a fizzy blockbuster thriller than something like HBO’s more somber, still harrowing, Chernobyl.
Directors Michael Uppendahl and Nick Murphy make sure viewers are on the edge of their seats throughout. There are frequent stomach-churning moments like that opening nightmarish plane scene, effective suspense set-pieces like that first journey into Level 4 and a regular awareness of the chain-of-infection that keeps characters and viewers ever wary of the risks and threats in public places. And just when The Hot Zone is beginning to flag a bit, the fifth and sixth episodes take place largely inside the Reston testing facility and it’s orchestrated as something close to Alien only with monkeys, which is right in my wheelhouse.
The Hot Zone benefits from a great cast it can only barely make adequate use of. Margulies’ natural chilly calm is a tremendous asset, though as good as she is, she’s not good enough to yell dialogue like “I know these pathogens, Jerry! Probably better than anybody else!” when required. She also has a monologue in a later episode that’s so dangerously close to “The real Ebola is love,” that I giggled inappropriately. Cunningham has a great enigmatic intensity, Grace some necessary snark, D’Arcy a nuanced weaselly pragmatism and Emmerich is always able to make the most of minimal characterization, but there’s little excuse for how totally wasted Gummer, Robert Sean Leonard, Robert Wisdom and Nick Searcy are.
That The Hot Zone is more of an easy-watching potboiler than either hard science or hard drama makes it a wholly reflective adaptation of Preston’s book. Come for the barf bags of blood, the monkey autopsies and lots and lots and lots of close-ups on microscope slides and pipettes; stay for the reminder that some of this stuff is real and ongoing.
Cast: Julianna Margulies, Noah Emmerich, Topher Grace, Paul James, Liam Cunningham, James D’Arcy, Robert Wisdom, Robert Sean Leonard, Grace Gummer
Creator: James V. Hart, developed by Kelly Sounders, Brian Peterson, Jeff Vintar from the book by Richard Preston
Premieres: Monday, May 27, 9 p.m. ET/PT (National Geographic)