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Most big tech-oriented Sci-fi movies of the early 1970s were disappointing compared to Stanley Kubrick's recently lauded 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of the few that's managed not to date too badly is Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain, which took the risky path to thrill audiences by flattering their intelligence. Composed of roughly two solid hours of uninterrupted technical exposition, the doomsday film nevertheless provides a suspenseful and entertaining ride. Writer Michael Crichton's best selling book blends themes from classic Sci-fi; Nelson Gidding's screenplay hints at political ideas that prove once again that movie science fiction is a good barometer for America's Cold War stance.
Universal's new Blu-ray finally presents this slick production in an attractive HD encoding. Do you enjoy futuristic technology and ominous bio-jeopardy? The Andromeda Strain is fascinating, even when it stumbles in the details.
Robert Wise and his designer Boris Leven begin the show as if it were a spy thriller. A space-age disaster occurs when a resident of the tiny town of Piedmont, New Mexico foolishly retrieves and opens an off-course satellite. Launched by Project Scoop, the space probe was specifically designed to search for life forms in outer space. Something the capsule picked up kills everyone in town within minutes. The military scrambles a special scientific-medical team to a secret location in Nevada, the vastly expensive futuristic bio-lab called Project Wildfire, built specifically to fight the danger of contamination from extraterrestrial organisms. Team leader Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) and surgeon Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson) enter Piedmont in isolation suits, locate the capsule and discover that whatever it carries kills by turning human blood into a fine dry powder. Even crazier, they find two unaffected survivors: a drunken old man and a bawling baby boy. Joining Stone and Hall at Wildfire are bio experts Drs. Charles Dutton (David Wayne) and Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid). Can they isolate and identify the alien organism, and concoct a medical defense against a contagion like nothing ever seen before?
A sometimes-lumpy tale that relies for its thrills almost completely 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. 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 sterile than the next; the up-to-the-minute (or fancifully extrapolated) equipment on view. As envisioned by crack production designer Boris Leven, most of these look terrific, if a bit dated now. Even in 1971, TV's Star Trek had overdone the spacey corridor look. And expecting professionals to properly function in an environment painted fire engine red seems odd; some of the work spaces in the film would drive people crazy. However, it's hard to argue with the clean designs on view, that seem directly copied from the artwork of Robert Wise's illustrator Maurice Zuberano.
On the positive side, screenwriter Nelson Giddings' attempt to humanize the proceedings is 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 (Sweet Charity) is charming, while Jackson, the sterno-pickled survivor (George Mitchell) is a great take on the jolly drunk everyone remembers from Them! Jackson even tries 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 alien contagion with cold calculation while projecting 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. Her Ruth Leavitt ends up letting the team down because she's kept her epilepsy problem a secret. A colleague makes excuses for Ruth by blaming the non-disclosure of her ailment on prejudice and fear, but the fact remains that Ruth's main story contribution is to jeopardize the mission. James Olson and Arthur Hill are far better than the film's detractors say they are, but Hill's expository responsibilities prevent him from doing much more than explaining things non-stop to the other characters. At one point Olson's Dr. Hall misunderstands the purpose of the red key he's been given, the one that defuses Wildfire's built-in nuclear self-destruct bomb: "No, no, you don't set off anything -- all you can do is stop it!" Their exchange gets right to the heart of the information overload -- Hall is a brilliant surgeon, but he's had to absorb 200 new concepts and operational rules in just a few hours. Most audiences felt at least some of the same frustration. Andromeda Strain dispensenses so much information that those not paying attention are soon left behind.
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 bleakness of mass slaughter through gas or biological agents. Like the naval officer in a radiation suit in On the Beach, Olsen and Hill search the town wearing plastic bio-hazard suits, and find only corpses. Wise and editor Stuart Gilmore use split screens for this sequence. Shots of the two men peering into windows are displayed next to stills of what they see: dead bodies of every age and description. A couple of brief full screen setups are interestingly composed of static compositions, reminding us that 18 years earlier Boris Leven worked on the visually quirky Invaders from Mars. Of all the late '60s attempts to use split-screen imagery (The Boston Strangler etc.), this one is the most successful. 1
The fact that the doctors rescue an unaccountably living baby hooks viewers not interested in grim sci-fi plagues. This is Crichton's best plot gimmick -- the 1971 audiences with whom I saw The Andromeda Strain 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 personal level. Every cut-back to the crying baby increased their concern.
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 Crichton's biggest debt is owed to the Quatermass films, two of which involve biological contamination/colonization from Outer Space. There's also a generous lift from the humble Kronos. Dr. Stone requests that the government immediately nuke the contaminated Piedmont location. Then, exactly as in Kronos, Stone learns that that Andromeda 'feeds on energy.' He then hastily backpedals to reverse his demand. Several dialogue lines are nearly direct quotes from the old movie about the Tinkertoy robot from space.
A glitch that isolates Wildfire's communications system -- yet ironically saves our planet from calamity -- is the same kind of low-tech snafu that threatened the world in Fail-Safe, the noted WW3 shocker that laid the blame for Armageddon on machines instead of people. The narrative of Andromeda momentarily breaks into an odd audio flash-forward to let us hear two generals discussing what caused the Project Wildfire communications breakdown. This scene always confuses viewers. It confused me because the calm 'voices from the future' reveal the fact that the world will not be destroyed. A trendy play with flash-forwards undermines the narrative clarity in other movies from this time as well, notably No Blade of Grass and The Anderson Tapes.
Project Wildfire is a more impressive version of the super-secret desert labs seen in other Sci-fi films. 1965's The Satan Bug proposed a similar underground desert facility that was in fact a germ warfare development station, one with really pitiful security. But Crichton appears to have copied the floor plan for Project Wildfire straight from Ivan Tors' 1954 thriller GOG. Everything is the same -- the secret desert location, the underground lab, its vertically-organized levels, the emphasis on military grade security. Earlier sci-fi movies often showed Big Science in service to Big Military. Destination Moon came right out with the statement that American space 'exploration' was really a military program. When old Dr. Dutton stumbles onto a bio-warfare map at Project Wildfire, he bluntly suggests that the Wildfire Project may a hoax, that Project Scoop's real mission is to search space for new biological weapons. In the bigger timeline of paranoid sci-fi concepts, that's a really progressive idea. The issue disappeared for a decade, until Alien sneaked in the mostly-ignored subtext that weaponry researchers might actually be searching for space monsters to convert to military purposes.
The story's actual biological threat peters out in a limp non-conclusion -- as it adapts to its new environment, Andromeda becomes harmless all on its own. Needing a dynamic conclusion, Michael Crichton borrowed the time-bomb countdown tension device introduced in Invaders from Mars. The gag is an awkward narrative device, but audiences bought it at the time. They loved the extra kick provided by Dr. Hall's desperate attempt to reach the disarm station with his special red key. 2
The computers in The Andromeda Strain are incredibly efficient for 1970, or for that matter, 2015. Their instant 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 petri dishes, or the analysis of blood, the data feedback is almost instantaneous. No matter what the question, our dauntless heroes click 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 space men in Star Trek.
The fact that audiences didn't recoil at the illogic of certain scenes is an endorsement for the film's basic effectiveness. Project Wildfire's personnel, presumably trained and screened to the Nth degree, balk like ignorant peasants at the possibility that Kate Reid might carry the Andromeda germ. It's not very flattering -- are they just clock-watching civil servants? At least they're not a pack of lily-livered crybabies, like the astronauts in the now hilarious Marooned.
The Andromeda organism is cleverly described as a life form 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 Polycron oxygen mask to bones and some metal fittings. Just being in our environment made the strain mutate, we're meant to understand. When Dr. Dutton is later exposed, it appears that he is spared because the virus specimen in the lab has also mutated to Andromeda 2.0 . It no longer kills humans, but it does attack the Polycron plastic of the lab's isolation seals, dissolving them as it did the pilot's air mask. But what about Andromeda 2.0's habit of eating human flesh? David Wayne looks pretty untouched to me.
Andromeda's post-mortem is also a bit on the pat side. If the space germ spontaneously mutates from a deadly form to a deadlier form, which version is drifting into the Pacific? It's neutralized by the acidic sea water, a gag, by the way, associated with the most feeble monster movies, like Day of the Triffids. How do we know that Andromeda won't mutate again, perhaps gaining a tolerance to a wider range of Ph? Perhaps Liz, the educated Australian lady behind the tech-savvy And You Call Yourself a Scientist! site has the knowledge to explain all this to the ignorant Savant.
Other less critical plot gripes point up some of Crichton's undeveloped story skills. Having the Wildfire lab be still under construction is a contrivance that allows the 'Odd Man Out' Dr. Hall to be nowhere near a disarm station when the nuclear destruct sequence starts. Now I ask you, do you think they would actually arm the bomb, before all of the buttons to disarm it are installed? That's like flying an airplane before the parachutes have arrived. Well, it does provide a convenient crisis for the climax.
But the shaggy plot device of a paper wedge that conveniently puts Wildfire out of contact with Washington is just one gimmick too many. Even if the arrogant doofus in the radio room didn't hear a bell, he'd certainly hear and see the reams of Teletype communications spilling out onto the floor. And there'd be standard check-in communications going on every time a new shift began. Hasn't anyone heard of backup systems?
Finally, Ruth Leavitt's epilepsy problem is used to keep the obvious means for killing Andromeda undiscovered until Dr. Hall can intuit it at a more dramatic moment. This one's sort of character-related, but is still a yawning plot hole plugged with an awkward contrivance. Crichton's technical and medical complications show that the most sophisticated of missions can be fouled up by dumb accidents, which is undeniably true. But the writer's inventions also make it seem that, had Wildfire only a smidgen of proper organization, those nasty Andromeda bugs 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 delayed an equally visionary but politically more interesting film called Colossus: the Forbin Project for almost two years, a big commercial mistake considering how primed audiences were for a sinister computer menace, just after the thrilling 2001. The Andromeda Strain avoids a political context, but its martial-law context now comes off as a stifling Cold War holdover. Back in 1971, audiences laughed approvingly at the armed troops that pick up the scientists and the Orwellian phone-tap interventions that interrupt their relatives' phone calls. Those government spies didn't mess around with civil liberties, man. It all now seems rather sinister. Perhaps our country's military-corporate leaders, when they exhaust other bogus sources of fear, will tell us they're suspending our rights because we need to be protected from germs from space.
A number of lab animals are seen being very realistically killed in The Andromeda Strain. In the docu, Wise asserts that the American Humane Association was involved in the scene of the monkey dying, and that the monkey wasn't harmed. It sure looks like it's being harmed. A director I know, Jon Bloom, was one of Robert Wise's assistants on Andromeda. I called him and he told me the whole story.
Robert Wise is telling the truth. The Humane (?) Association was present during filming and approved the procedure. It was shot at Universal on a set that was sealed airtight and filled with carbon dioxide. The whole crew used scuba gear. The monkey's glass cage was also airtight -- it contained oxygen. The mechanical arm put the cage on the table, and opened its door. The monkey immediately could not breathe, and fell unconscious in only a few seconds, just as we see in the film. Assistant director James Fargo was just off camera in his scuba outfit, holding a second oxygen source. As soon as the monkey was still for a couple of seconds, he rushed in and fed it oxygen while carrying it out of the set. A reflection of Fargo in motion can be seen, just before the shot cuts away. 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. That the monkey suffered as it choked into unconsciousness is obvious. Jon feels that the film needed the scene, because audiences had so far only heard a lot of talk about deadly germs. To be really involved, they given a realistic example of how a bio-agent works, 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 don't think that the fact that the monkey didn't actually die is much of an excuse. Because we kill so many animals elsewhere in daily life, for many reasons, I'm not at all clear on where the line should be drawn on the killing of living things for movies.5
Universal's Blu-ray of The Andromeda Strain is a clean and handsome encoding of this still-impressive sci-fi suspense item. The spotless HD transfer has the contrast range to handle the film's oversaturated colors and bright special effects. The DTS-HD monaural audio makes Gil Mellé's eccentric electronic music score stand out. It's so good that the cliché titles made from floating computer text, look interesting. The original soundtrack lp came in a hexagonally-shaped novelty album cover, to mimic the form of the film's crystalline germ.
The old DVD gave us English and Spanish subtitles; this Blu-ray has English and French. Back in 2003 I criticized the DVD's lame cover illustration, as looking like something from a Dianetics pocketbook. This new Blu-ray uses the exact same artwork!
The very good older disc extras have been ported over. The docu is a thorough tour through the making of the film, guided by Robert Wise and Nelson Gidding. Wise starts with the old, 'It's not Science Fiction, it's Science Fact' nonsense none of us needs to hear. But his memory of the details is good. Gidding applauds Crichton, and effects master Douglas Trumbull sketches the specifics of his and Jamie Shourt's brilliantly achieved visuals. The custom-designed high resolution television screens they constructed to depict the crystalline Andromeda organisms predated technology later developed to record computer images onto film -- and to transfer video to film, and vice-versa. This movie was Doug Trumbull's entry into effects as they were done in the real industry, and not the dream factory, sky-is-the-limit situation of 2001. He acknowledges his admiration for the experts that preceded him. Trumbull named one of his daughters Andromeda after this movie, by the way.
In his own interview extra, Michael Crichton volunteers stories of his days as a tyro writer and his first movie deal. One thing he doesn't say is that his 'original' crystal microorganisms were proposed and depicted (almost identically!) in the landmark Walt Disney space exploration TV series episode Mars and Beyond, from way back in 1955.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Andromeda Strain Blu-ray
1. Arthur Hill's Dr. Stone later experiences a memory-dream of Piedmont and its corpses, another sequence designed in split-screen technique. It ingeniously adds a new split-screen image of death: Stone's own wife dead back in Washington. It is presumably what he fears will happen if Project Wildfire fails. The split screens show Dr. Stone's 'real' memories of the day, but then include a 'virtual' vision from his imagination. It's very effective.
2. The laser-ray chase up ladders leading out of a secret lab gag didn't work so well when adapted for the ending fizzle of Paul Verhoeven's The Hollow Man (2000).
3. The plot needs to keep Wildfire 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 Irwin Allen's all-time stinker, The Towering Inferno. In that movie, party guests are trapped in a penthouse restaurant by a fire that has made the elevators a death trap. Why can't they just exit via 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? Any conflict of logic can be easily overcome by brilliant screenwriting.
4. Telephone interview with Jon Bloom, April 14, 2003
5. How about that jolly news item about chicken farmers 'recycling' thousands of sick chickens by tossing them -- alive -- into wood chippers? You know, the Fargo livestock management method! The sanctity of life, human, animal or otherwise is given such short shrift in this world that animal activists must face a tough uphill struggle. That little monkey's cousins may have been sacrificed by the thousands for medical research, or perhaps just frivolous cosmetics testing. See this link provided by reader 'Dave.' (nothing graphic or shocking).
6. This title was a Best Buy exclusive about four months ago. I made several special trips to local stores, only to be frustrated by obnoxious floor staff that wouldn't check stock, or blew me off by acting like I was bothering them, that I should order through the company's website. It's as if they had been instructed that walk-in disc customers were to be ignored. The only help I got was from a West L.A. store where a clerk wanted me to watch him go through every rack in the department, so he could tell me he did his best to find one. I went through the same process several years ago with some Best Buy James Bond exclusives: "I'm a sales professional, what's your stupid problem?" I won't try that again.
7. Back at UCLA, while working as a movie usher, my theater manager gave me my very own 'Wildfire Disarm Key' for a souvenir! The film had played at the fancy Westwood Theater the year before, and all the ushers were given the red keys to wear as a promotional gimmick. I've worn mine once or twice, but have yet to have anybody come up and say, 'so where's the bomb, Glenn?' Donations to help sooth Savant's hurt feelings may be sent at any time, no questions asked.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.