Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The only really big tech-oriented Sci Fi movie to succeed in the wake of Kubrick's 2001,
Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain thrilled audiences by flattering their intelligence.
Composed of roughly two solid hours of uninterrupted technical exposition, the
suspenseful doomsday film nevertheless provides an entertaining ride. Writer Michael
Crichton blends themes from classic Sci Fi, and ventures some political content that proves
once again that movie science fiction is a good barometer for America's Cold War stance.
Universal's new disc finally presents the film in an acceptable form - a previous DVD and older
laserdiscs had notably bad transfers. And Laurent Bouzereau provides a thorough and informative
documentary short subject.
A space-age disaster occurs when the residents of Piedmont, Nevada, foolishly
retrieve and open an off-course satellite - something the capsule picked up in outer space
kills everyone in town within minutes. The military activates Project Wildfire, a vastly expensive
secret desert lab built specifically to fight the danger of contamination from extraterrestrial
organisms, and scrambles to assemble its top personnel. Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) and Dr.
Mark Hall (James Olson) enter Piedmont in isolation suits, locate the capsule and discover that
whatever it carries turns human blood into a fine dry powder very quickly. Even crazier,
there are two unaffected survivors - a drunken old man, and a crying baby. Can Wildfire isolate
and identify the alien organism, and concoct a medical defense against a contagion that may be
like nothing seen before?
A sometimes lumpy tale that relies for its thrills on the unfolding of a technical enigma, The
Andromeda Strain can at least claim to have more than silly gimmicks on its agenda. As in
the convincing source book, following the four scientist heroes into a Sherlock Holmes mystery has
its own rewards, and minor drawbacks. Yet, it's a serious attempt at intelligent Science Fiction,
a welcome rarity.
Relentlessly literal, the tale spends its first hour rounding up its quartet of researchers and
getting them to the bottom level of a secret lab in the Nevada desert. Following up on the tech-happy
2001, most of the interest is in the hardware itself - the color-coded levels
of the lab, each more clean than the next, the up-to-the-minute (or fancifully extrapolated) equipment
the scientists use. As envisioned by crack production designer Boris Leven, most of these look
terrific, if a bit dated now - Star Trek has overdone the spacey corridor look, and trying
to work in a fire-engine red environment would drive people crazy.
On the positive side, the attempts to humanize the proceedings are fairly successful. The military
men and politicians carry just as much procedural exposition as do the lead characters, but are nicely
cast and distinguished; nurse Paula Kelly is charming, and the drunken survivor of the town, George
Mitchell, does a nice spin on the jolly drunk everyone remembers from
Them!, right down to trying to
bargain for booze and cigarettes. His comic asides into the tv monitors are a welcome respite
from the sober tension of the rest of the story.
The four leads have a tougher problem, as they're asked to attack the contagion problem with cold
calculation, and still present entertainingly individualistic personalities. As the old crank on the
payroll, David Wayne has the lightest exposition burden, and comes off the best. Faux-hardboiled
Kate Reid carries most of the
comedy with her smart remarks, but ends up letting the team down with her epilepsy problem. Another
actor makes excuses for her by citing the non-disclosure of her ailment as due to prejudice and fear,
but the fact is, Kate's main plot contribution is to jeopardize the mission. James Olson and
Arthur Hill are better than the film's detractors say they are, but poor Hill's expository
him from doing much more than explaining things non-stop to the other characters. The moment where
Olson misunderstands the purpose of his red nuclear key ("No, no, you don't set off anything - all
you can do is stop it!") is unintentionally ironic - one hopes the boys behind our nuclear arsenal
have a better understanding of their duty.
The picture starts off chillingly with the investigation of the dead town of Piedmont, a sequence that
tops previous doomsday movie efforts in conveying the terror of mass slaughter through gas or biological
agents. Like the rubber-suited officer in On the Beach, Olsen and Hill search the town, finding
only corpses. Wise and editor Stuart Gilmore use split screens for this sequence, with men looking
into windows next to stills of what they see; a couple of brief fullscreen setups are interestingly
composed of static compositions, reminding us that Boris Leven worked on the visually quirky
Invaders from Mars 18 years earlier. Of
all the late 60s attempts to do splitscreen work (The Boston Strangler etc.),
this one works the best. 1
The two doctors rescue an inexplicably living baby and take him to the lab, which is Crichton's best
plot gimmick - audiences with which I saw The Andromeda Strain in 1971 couldn't have cared
less about 64
dead Nevadans, and probably weren't really worried about the world being depopulated by a Space Germ.
But one cute, crying baby grabbed their emotions and brought the jeopardy down to the elemental level.
When people call The Andromeda Strain Crichton's best work, they must be referring to
his ingenious use
of real medical knowledge to lend the story an air of authenticity. That quality carries over to the
film, wedded to concepts baldly lifted (and often improved upon) from classic-era Sci Fi movies.
I mentioned Them! and On the Beach, but the biggest debt is to the
Quatermass films, two of which involve
biological colonization from Outer Space. There's also a generous lift from the humble
Kronos. Exactly as in the old
movie about the
tinkertoy robot from space, the heroes demand that the government nuke the Piedmont location, and
then hastily reverse themselves when they find out that Andromeda 'feeds on energy'. Several dialogue
lines are practically a direct quote from Kronos.
What in this instance saves the world from calamity, is the same kind of low-tech snafu that
threatened it in Fail-Safe, that famous WW3 shocker that put the blame for armageddon on
machines instead of people. In Andromeda, the story momentarily breaks into an odd audio
flash-forward to let us hear two generals discussing what caused the Project Wildfire
communications breakdown. I always ask people about that scene, and they tell me it confused them.
It confused me, because the calm 'voices from the future' gave away the fact that the world will not
Project Wildfire is a more impressive version of the super-secret desert labs seen in Sci
Fi films from Gog onward. The Satan Bug had a similar facility that was in fact a germ
warfare development station, one with really pitiful security. Just as movies like
Destination Moon came right out with the
statement that American space exploration was really a military issue, Crichton has one of his
scientists make the blunt accusation that the whole Wildfire Project is a hoax, that Project Scoop's
mission was to find new biological weapons in space. It's a really good idea for Crichton to include,
even it's the most paranoid of the scientists who brings it up. The whole
issue was dropped for a decade, until Alien sneaked in the mostly-ignored subtext that
Earth weapons researchers might actually be searching for space monsters to convert to military
Crichton cleverly updated the nuclear countdown tension device from Invaders from Mars. It's
a bit awkward, but is needed to create a climax. The film's biological threat peters out
in a limp non-conclusion - Andromeda becomes harmless all on its own. It's really a rude narrative
sidestep, but audiences bought it at the time, and enjoyed the extra kick provided by James Olson's
desperate attempt to reach the disarm station. 2
The computers in The Andromeda Strain are really, really efficient for 1970, or 2003, for that
matter. Their instant feedback analysis of each situation is remarkable. What we never see is how the
instant data is collected and digitized, whether it involves measuring growth on petrie dishes, or
the instant analysis of blood. No matter
what the question, our dauntless heroes plink a few keys on a keyboard, and the facts they want
simply leap up at them. Is The Andromeda Strain the dawn of the lazy writer-brilliant
computer syndrome? The scientists here pluck info out of the air as nonchalantly as do the spacemen in
The fact that audiences didn't recoil at the illogic of certain scenes probably says a lot about the
film's basic effectiveness. The staff of Project Wildfire, presumably trained and screened to the
nth degree, balk like peasants frightened by the plague at the possibility that Kate Reid might carry
the Andromeda germ. It's not very flattering - are they just clockwatching civil servants? At
least they're not a bunch of lily-livered crybabies, like the astronauts in the now-hilarious
The Andromeda organism is cleverly described as a lifeform based on an alien crystalline structure.
After wiping out Piedmont, it apparently mutates to a form that no longer coagulates blood, but
instead dissolves human flesh and certain similarly structured plastics - reducing a jet pilot and
his polychron oxygen mask to bones and some metal fittings. Just being in our environment made the
strain mutate, we're meant to understand. It appears that when David Wayne is later exposed, he is
spared because the virus specimen in the lab has mutated to Andromeda 2.0 as well. It attacks the
polychron plastic of the lab's isolation seals, dissolving then as it did the pilot's mask. But what
about Andromeda 2.0's human flesh-eating quality? Wayne looks pretty untouched to me.
Andromeda's post-mortem is also a bit on the pat side - if this thing spontaneously
mutates from a deadly form to a deadlier form, which version is drifting into the Pacific, to be
neutralized by the acidic sea water? (A gag, by the way, associated with the most simple-minded
monster movies, like Day of the Triffids.) How do we know it won't mutate again, perhaps
gaining a tolerance to wider range of Ph? Perhaps Liz, the educated Australian lady behind the
And You Call Yourself a Scientist! site
has the facts to explain all this to the ignorant Savant.
Other plot gripes are less critical, but point up some of Crichton's not-fully developed
story skills. Having the lab be unfinished, so that the Odd Man Out Olsen is nowhere
near a disarm station when the nuclear destruct sequence starts, is fairly defensible, even though
it provides a convenient crisis for the climax.
But using the paper wedge gimmick to conveniently put the whole lab out of contact with Washington,
is a pretty desperate gimmick. Even if the doofus in the radio room didn't
hear a bell, he'd certainly hear and see the reams of teletype communication spilling out onto the
floor. Hasn't anyone heard of backup systems?
Finally, Kate Reid's epilepsy problem is used to keep the obvious means for killing Andromeda
undiscovered until the solution can be intuited by James Olson at a more dramatic moment. This one's
sort of character-related, but is still a yawning plot hole plugged with ... a little piece
of paper. Crichton's dodges to complicate simple situations shows how dumb accidents can foul up any
mission. They also make it seem that, if Wildfire had but a smidgen of proper organization, Andromeda
would have been defeated before lunchtime. 3
Universal and Robert Wise are to be commended for their attempt at quality Sci Fi so soon after
2001. Universal buried an equally visionary but politically more interesting film called
Colossus - the Forbin Project for almost two years, a big commercial mistake considering
how ready audiences were for its perfect a post - 2001 computer menace. The Andromeda
Strain avoids a political context, but
certainly has a martial-law flavor. The armed troops that pick up the scientists, and block their
relatives' phone calls, were laughed at approvingly by audiences back in 1971 - those government
spies didn't mess around with civil liberties, man. It all now seems rather sinister. Perhaps the
government, when it exhausts other sources of fear, will tell us they're suspending our rights
to protect us from germs from space ...
Universal's deluxe disc of The Andromeda Strain belies its low price. The transfer is sharp
and brilliant, greatly enhancing the enjoyment of this movie's designs - the aluminum
rooms and shiny white lab instruments. The audio is in 5.1 only, and there are English and Spanish
subtitles. I'm stealing the gag, but the disc cover art looks like something from a Dianetics pocketbook.
A text blurb predictably exploits the Crichton-Jurassic Park connection.
The docu is a thorough
tour through the making of the film, guided by Robert Wise and Nelson Gidding. Wise hasn't much to
say except the old 'it's not Science Fiction but Science Fact' nonsense none of us need to
hear. But his memory of the details is pretty good. Gidding applauds Crichton, and Crichton is on
hand to volunteer stories of his first film deal. Douglas Trumbull sketches the details of his
and Jamie Shourt's brilliantly-achieved effects. They used custom-created hi-res television
screens in ways that seem to predict concepts later developed to record computer images onto film.
It was Trumbull's entry into effects as they were done in the real industry (not the dream-factory,
sky-is-the-limit situation of 2001), and he acknowledges his admiration for the experts who
preceded him. He named one of his daughters Andromeda after this movie, by the way.
Choking the Monkey
A number of lab animals are seen being very realistically killed in The Andromeda Strain. In
the docu, Wise asserts that the ASPCA was involved in the scene of the monkey dying,
and that the monkey wasn't harmed. I was about to write of my suspicions that the poor little
monkey was killed onscreen
for the film, when I remembered that a director I know, Jon Bloom, was a director's assistant on
Andromeda. I called him and he told me the whole story.
Robert Wise is telling the truth. The ASPCA was present during filming of the scene, and approved
the procedure. It was shot at Universal on a set that was sealed airtight and
filled with Carbon Dioxide. The monkey's glass cage was also airtight - it contained oxygen. The
mechanical arm put the cage on the table, and opened the door. The monkey immediately couldn't
breathe, and fell unconscious in only a few seconds - just as we see in the film. Assistant director
James Fargo was just off camera, breathing through a scuba outfit and holding a second oxygen source
- as soon as the monkey was still for a couple of seconds, he rushed in and fed the monkey oxygen
while carrying it out of the set. The monkey revived immediately. There was only one take.
Jon suspects that the ASPCA wouldn't allow this sort of thing to be done today. The monkey did have
a traumatic few moments, and did suffer. That much is obvious from the movie. Jon feels that a
scene as realistic as that was needed for the film, because audiences had heard nothing but talk
about deadly germs, and needed to see something that looked undeniably real. The monkey and the
crying baby were necessary to depict the consequences of an invisible 'monster' that
was impossible to show directly. 4
I myself am not sure where the line should be drawn with the killing of living things for movies, as
we do it so much everywhere else in daily life.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Andromeda Strain rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Making-of Documentary, profile of Michael Crichton, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 16, 2003
1. Arthur Hill has a later memory-dream of Piedmont and its corpses, that
ingeniously adds a new split-screen image of death - his wife dead back in Washington or wherever,
presumably what he fears will happen if Project Wildfire fails. It's very effective.
2. The chase up ladders leading out of a secret lab gag didn't work so
well when adapted for the ending fizzle of the recent The Hollow Man.
3. The plot needs to keep 'em out of communication, so a paper slip
silences the incoming message bell. At Savant Central, these mechanical plot devices to thwart obvious
solutions to problems are given the name, 'Wheelbarrows', in honor of that all-time stinker,
The Towering Inferno. In that movie, party guests are stuck in the penthouse restaurant. Why
don't they just use the stairwells? Because a lazy workman just happens to have spilled and abandoned a
wheelbarrow-load of concrete(!?) against the back of the stairwell access door! See? No conflict of
logic can't be overcome by brilliant screenwriting!
4. Telephone interview with Jon Bloom, April 14, 2003
5. How about that jolly news item the other day about thousands of sick
chickens being 'recycled' by being tossed - alive - into wood chippers? You know, the Fargo
management method! The sanctity of life, human, animal or otherwise is given such short shrift in
this world, that animal activists must have a tough uphill struggle. That monkey's cousins were
probably sacrificed by the thousands for medical research, or maybe just frivolous cosmetics testing.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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