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The Andromeda Strain

The Andromeda Strain
Universal Home Video
1971 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 130 min. / Street Date April 1, 2003 / $14.98
Starring Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson, Kate Reid, Paula Kelly , George Mitchell, Ramon Bieri
Cinematography Richard H. Kline
Production Designer Boris Leven
Art Direction William H. Tuntke
Film Editor Stuart Gilmore, John W. Holmes
Special Effects James Shourt, Albert Whitlock, John Whitney Sr., Douglas Trumbull
Original Music Gil Melle
Written by Nelson Gidding from the novel by Michael Crichton
Produced and Directed by Robert Wise

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The only really big tech-oriented Sci-fi movie to succeed in the immediate 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 laser discs 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, New Mexico 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 like nothing ever 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. 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 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 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 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 alien contagion with cold calculation, yet create 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 blaming the non-disclosure of her ailment on prejudice and fear, but the fact remains that 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 responsibilities prevent 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 and find 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 full screen 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 split-screen 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. This is Crichton's best plot gimmick - audiences with whom 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 be destroyed.

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. Destination Moon came right out with the statement that American space exploration was really a military issue, and Crichton has one of his scientists make the blunt accusation that the whole Wildfire Project is a hoax, that Project Scoop's mission is 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 movies dropped the issue 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 purposes.

Crichton cleverly updated the nuclear countdown tension device from Invaders from Mars, an awkward device 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 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 petri 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 space men in Star Trek.

The fact that audiences didn't recoil at the illogic of certain scenes probably says a lot about 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 bunch 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 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 habit? Wayne looks pretty untouched to me.

Andromeda's post-mortem is also a bit on the pat side. If it mutates spontaneously 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 it won't mutate again, perhaps gaining a tolerance to a wider range of Ph? Perhaps Liz, the educated Australian lady behind the science-savvy And You Call Yourself a Scientist! site has the knowledge to explain all this to the ignorant Savant.

Other plot gripes are less critical but point up some of Crichton's undeveloped 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 desperate plot gimmick. Even if the 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. 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 it 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 complications show 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 leaders, when they exhaust 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 aluminum rooms and shiny white lab instruments. The audio is in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, and there are English and Spanish subtitles. The disc cover art looks like something from a Dianetics pocketbook. A text blurb predictably exploits the Crichton-Jurassic Park connection. The artwork found on the web above spells Jurassic wrong, but not my screener. (anyway, where does Savant get off, complaining about misspelled words? I'm the king of that.)

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 needs to hear. But his memory of the details is good. Gidding applauds Crichton, and Crichton is on hand to volunteer stories of his first movie deal. Douglas Trumbull sketches the details of his and Jamie Shourt's brilliantly achieved effects. They used custom-created hi-resolution television screens in ways that predict concepts later developed to record computer images onto film. The film 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 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, 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 it 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. 

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.  5

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Andromeda Strain rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good
Sound: Excellent
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. It is 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? Any logical conflict can 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 livestock 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. See this link provided by reader 'Dave'. (nothing graphic or shocking)

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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