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Back to Andromeda

by TFH Team Jun 29, 2014

By David S. Schow

Hall:  “Where’s the library?”

Dutton:  “No need for books — everything’s in the computer.”

One of the few regrets of my adult life is that I never got to meet Michael Crichton, who died too young, November 2008.  Eminently emulatable, he had conquered publishing, film and television and remains a personal hero.  I was hooked from the moment my father returned from his Arctic DEWLine duties bearing a paperback first printing of The Andromeda Strain, which I plowed through while in high school.  Then immediately re-read, and re-read again.

I still have that paperback.

Subsequently I devoured everything Crichton wrote — the “John Lange” potboilers written to pay his way through medical school; the landmark A Case of Need (written as “Jeffrey Hudson;” a stingingly strong pro-choice novel done prior to the Roe v. Wade decision); even the dope fantasia Dealing, written with his brother as “Michael Douglas.”  Even his book on the artwork of Jasper Johns.  Even the one Crichton book not likely to ever be reprinted — his prescient rumination on home computers, Electronic Life, written in 1980.

And the attraction was always: This guy really knows what he’s talking about.  He convinced me.

About halfway through the novel Timeline — not one of Crichton’s best — there is an explanation of quantum physics that even I, science mook, could clearly comprehend.  Crichton came to represent for me that bridge between incomprehensible technology and common understanding.

But, it has been argued, his characters all suck.

But, it is further argued, he uses the same plot over and over.  A motley team of high-tech wiseguys are collected into an exotic location where they become outfoxed by their own security systems.

Both essentially true.

Both criticisms were brought heavily to bear when Crichton was profiled in Time magazine.  So I wrote Time a letter saying I never read Crichton for characters; I read him because he allowed me to cross that bridge.  At least I got to defend him in print, not that he needed it.

The Andromeda Strain novel is loaded with citations, some of them from scholarly works authored by the characters in the story, a revelation that just blew me away.  Crichton made up those references credibly enough to veneer his characters with academic respectability; they, too, knew what they were talking about.

Therefore, Crichton lied brilliantly, to escort readers to places they might never venture willingly.

That, to me, sums up the charter of a really good writer.

(Which is why the fast-and-loose pseudoscience of Jurassic Park doesn’t bug me.  The reader has been cunningly pre-biased toward being convinced because he or she, more than any other consideration, wants to get to those dinosaurs.)

In 1970, I decided there was just no way that a movie of The Andromeda Strain could be as engrossing as the novel.

In 1971, I was proven about as wrong as I could be.

The plot recounts “the four-day history of a major American scientific crisis,” in this case the microbiological Armageddon posed by “brand-new form of life” brought to Earth by one of our own space capsules, which touches down in a small town and immediately wipes out most of the population.  In a state-of-the-art lab complex buried in the Nevada desert, our assembled team of specialists races against time to determine the nature of the enemy.

With nearly forty years of hindsight, The Andromeda Strain remains one of the most flat-out suspenseful movies ever made from a science fictional premise.  Watch the early scene in which console men gradually stop what they’re doing to listen to a horrific encounter solely via radio speaker; it’s a textbook of tension-building at the hands of director Robert Wise, who wisely stuck to Crichton’s compressed timeframe (96 hours) to make every plot turn seem imminent and threatening.

It is one of the last science fiction films to be wholly populated by adults.  No celebrities, prettyboys or youth-demographic compromises.

It is one of the few not overwhelmingly beholden to the spectacle of special effects.

It is one of the very few in which scientists act like scientists, and one of the even fewer which depict the numbing tedium of procedural research — albeit efficiently (the pacing never lags).

It is rife with aching ironies:  The entire earth is threatened by an organism the size of a pencil point.  The Wildfire lab’s deep technology is subjugated by a sliver of paper.  When Andromeda mutates to a noninfectious form, it is at its most dangerous.  If the fifth member of the team had not been waylaid by appendicitis, then Dr. Leavitt would not have suffered an epileptic blackout while doing the other doc’s job.

In the novel, the team is all male.  Screenwriter Nelson Gidding suggested making one of the scientists a woman.  The result:  Kate Reid’s Dr. Ruth Leavitt is the single best piece of casting in any science fiction movie, ever.  Middle-aged, paunchy, outspoken, wise-cracking and rebellious, she smokes, has shitty eyesight and allergies, and keeps her epilepsy a closely guarded secret.  She’s about as far away from Ripley or Raquel Welch as you can imagine, in an award-worthy performance never considered for any trophy.

You don’t get more rock-solid or utterly believable than her colleagues, either — Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson (in his single best performance in a feature film, period) and Paula Kelly.  (You’d never know it from this movie, but Kelly, an accomplished singer and dancer who enjoys the weird distinction of being Playboy’s first full-frontal non-Playmate nude [in 1969], stepped away from acting after two Emmy nominations to pursue her musical career.  She still gigs!)

No characters die off in reverse order of their credits.

Gidding and Wise concocted a form they called the “cinescript,” which incorporated all the printouts and schema seen in the book, as well as the multi-screen effects seen in Wise’s subdivided Cinemascope frame — a very visual approach, at the time, to mirror Crichton’s inclusion of graphs and charts (laboriously handcrafted on an IBM Selectric).  Wise’s masterful command of composition for the ‘scope frame is seen in numerous split diopter shots.

The film also features Gil Mellé’s groundbreaking electronic score, the most arresting aural furniture since the “tonalities” of Forbidden Planet.  The first issue of the soundtrack album was a hexagonal disc inside a silver sleeve that “flowered” open, to compliment the Andromeda organism’s stop-sign shape.  Watch closely and you’ll see this “hex” theme reiterated all over the film.

If trivia is your heroin, try spotting the following actors in bit parts:  Michael Pataki (Count Dracula in Dracula’s Dog) as the Mic T., Bart La Rue (Irwin Allen and Star Trek regular) as a medic, Lance Fuller (of This Island Earth, Voodoo Woman and The She Creature) as a bystander, or Glen Langan (the Amazing Colossal Man himself!) as a cabinet secretary.  For a long time, Crichton’s own silent cameo (during James Olson’s first operating theatre scene) was obliterated by the pan-and-scan nature of VHS.  Wise himself donned surgical greens as a stand-in for the same shot, though he’s unrecognizable.  And visual effects maestro Douglas Trumbull named his daughter Andromeda after working on this film.

Years later, Crichton noted that his very first visit to a movie studio was to Universal during production of The Andromeda Strain.  He was shepherded around the lot by a young hotshot named Spielberg, then on the brink of directing his first Night Gallery episode.  For years following the release of the movie, those glorious stainless-steel Wildfire sets were part of the studio tour (they pop up regularly in other productions, too, like the “Spanish Moss Murders” episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker).  A lot of viewers don’t realize that the top of the Central Core set is actually an Albert Whitlock matte painting.

This is also one of the first movies to regularly use a scrolling readout for time, date, and location to place action — a now much-overused device by filmmakers who feel the need to tell the audience with a insert title that an establishing shot of the Golden Gate Bridge means, in fact, that we are in San Francisco.

Forget the egregious 2008 TV-remake.  Amid all its persiflage about buckyballs, wormholes and time travel, it didn’t even get the plot point about acidosis and rapid breathing right.

Forty years later, The Andromeda Strain has not only earned its slot as a modern classic, but also remains as one of the handful of films that wears its respect on its sleeve, honoring the book on which it was based.

It convinced me.