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Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Andromeda Strain

Universal Pictures put out a major A-grade sci-fi film in early 1971. The Andromeda Strain was a "hard" science fiction story, based on a story by author Michael Crichton (later of Jurassic Park fame) told as a thriller by director Robert Wise (of Day The Earth Stood Still fame). By design, the cast includes less-famous, but still solid acting talent such as Arthur HIll, David Wayne, James Olson and Kate Reid. The premise -- a dangerous germ from space -- was not new, but the story is given a modern update. Bio-hazards were becoming a rival to nuke-hazards for movie themes. There is much available on the internet about TAS, so this review won't try to cover all aspects of the film.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Agents sent to recover a returned satellite discover that everyone in the small town near the landing site is dead. Even the agents die. Dr.Stone (Hill) and Dr. Hall (Olson) explore the town in hazmat suits. Everyone dead of blood clotted to powder -- except an old wino and a crying infant. All are rush away to a remote and secret underground facility built for just such a crisis. Stone and Hall are joined by Dr. Dutton (Wayne) and Dr. Leavitt (Reid). They go through elaborate and extensive decontamination procedures until they reach the lowest and cleanest level. The base has a nuke at its bottom, set to blow up in 5 minutes if there is any contamination leak. Hall is entrusted with the disarming key. The scientists set about trying to discover the nature of the alien germ. They eventually find and isolate it, but does not fit the pattern of earth life. It is crystal-based, not needing light, or oxygen or food, etc. On the surface, the germ mutates such that it consumes synthetic rubber instead of blood. Planes crash when pilots lose their oxygen. Communications with the base are down, so word doesn't get to them about the mutation. The scientist discover that the germ, the Andromeda Strain, "feeds" on energy, so a nuke would only force feed it. The germ in the base also mutates and eats through rubber seals. The team figure out that the germ can only survive in a narrow ph range. That's why the wino and the baby survived. At the containment breach, the nuke arms itself. Hall, with the key, is sealed off from a disarming station. He must climb through an access tunnel protected with lasers and deadly gas. He just barely makes it in time, with 8 seconds left. Word of the ph factor is relayed. Cloud seeding over the germ "colony" causes acid rain that kills them off. The world is saved, but would it be ready for the next time? Would it? The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The thriller format, and the race-against-time tropes make for good entertainment. The science focus in the "how dunnit" plot gives the story a cerebral quality.

Cultural Connection
It's da gubbment, I tell ya. The Vietnam era caused a rift in the people-and-government. Gone, was the cozy comfort of old sci-fi movies when the government (usually the army) would step in as savior. In TAS, there are undertones of government having brought on the problem and maybe plotting to do something even worse. As the Cold War angst over nukes faded, worries that there may be an enemy within were freer to grow.

Strong Family -- One component of TAS's success comes from the people making it. They experienced in some major sci-fi films. Robert Wise directed, as he had The Day the Earth Stood Still ('51). But he had done other big name films since then, like West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Special Effects man, Doug Trumbull was Effects Supervisor for Kubrick's 2001 ('68). He would go on to do Close Encounters and the Star Trek movie. Boris Leven, who designed the 2001-esque sets for "Wildfire" had been doing sci-fi set design since Donovan's Brain ('53) and Invaders from Mars ('53). With such a talented team, it would have been hard for TAS to fail.

Legacy Dangers -- The trope that space was a source of bio-dangers was one of the classic tropes in sci-fi. Radiation was the usual danger, but biological dangers were a close second. This historical foundation may have aided TAS's success. The Quatermass Xperiment ('55) posited an alien germ which came back with an astronaut, then grew into a deadly blob monster. Space Master X-7 ('58) featured a fungus which returned on a satellite and grew into a deadly monster. The Blob ('58) featured a very non-humanoid alien coming to earth on a meteorite and growing to a killer blob monster. Part of the time, we imaged dangers from space as big strong monsters. Sometimes we imaged it as tiny invaders.

Conspiracy? -- Hinted at, though never confirmed, was the implication that "Scoop 7" was sent into space to gather alien germs. The Dr. Stone character seems to know more than he lets on. The "Wildfire" lab just as equivocal too. Maybe it was all set to identify and counter act an (eartly) enemy biological attack. Maybe it was built to do just what it did -- study a deadly extra-terrestrial germ.

Crystal-Life -- Central to Crichton's story was exploring the notion of how an alien life form might be very different from earth forms. The Andromeda Strain is curiously reminiscent of that 1957 sleeper, Monolith Monsters. In MM, crystals from space also land, and grow and kill. The race against time, before an ever-growing crystal theaters the world, is also reminiscent of 1953's Magnetic Monster. Granted, in the latter MM, the "isotope" was earthly, but the race to neutralize it felt very similar.

Bottom line? TAS is an A-grade benchmark for sci-fi in the post-2001 era. It is an excellent example of that rare genre -- "Hard" science fiction. The thriller aspect gives the movie appeal beyond sci-fi fans. The pace of the first half may seem slow to modern viewers, but the story never actually lags. Only occasionally does 70s technology look dated (such as the teletype). The special effects are all physical or optical, yet look pretty good, even in the CGI-era. All in all, the film ages very well. TAS is a must-see for fans of old (or not so old) sci-fi.


Randall Landers said...

Definitely a must-see film. I must admit I always got the impression that WildFire may have been designed to develop a captured space microbe into a bioweapon, hence David Wayne's character's objection.

The biggest flaw in the film in the same thing that affects Wise's Star Trek: The Motion Picture: pacing. He goes into almost loving detail as we follow the doctors through decontamination just as he spends a good five minute showing all the loving detail of the Enterprise.

Don't get me wrong; I love both of those sequences, BUT your average movie goer won't appreciate the attention to minutiae.

Nightowl said...

Hey Randall,
I agree about the slow-paced "loving" stretches. Modern (impatient) viewers could be annoyed with them. If a viewer was alive at that time, they can recall how fascinating technology was at the time, and understand the reveling in it. (Nowadays, tech is so ubiquitous that it doesn't seem worth the attention).
Yes, the whole "Scoop" satellite program and "Wildfire" suggest that the government -was- probing for bio-weapons. I kind of enjoyed the subtext of conspiracy theory about nasty-government -- such as Vietnam Era feature. :-)