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The Andromeda Strain

by Glenn Erickson May 28, 2019

Jumpin’ gingivitis!  Vicious microbes from space threaten the world, and our only hope is a team of scientists in an underground lab in Nevada. But the sneaky germ from the cosmos is a-mutatin’ faster than a mess o’ jackrabbits, to a form that doesn’t just kill people, but totally consumes our flesh! No, it’s not David Cronenberg or Nigel Kneale, but the ultra-literal director Robert Wise that put this slick, expensive Sci-fi thriller on the screen, from the best-seller by the commercially savvy Michael Crichton.


The Andromeda Strain
Blu-ray
Arrow Video
1971 / Color / 2:35 / 131 min. / Street Date June 4, 2019 / Available from Arrow Video / 39.95
Starring: Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson, Kate Reid,
Paula Kelly, George Mitchell, Ramon Bieri.
Cinematography: Richard H. Kline
Production Designer: Boris Leven
Film Editors: Stuart Gilmore, John W. Holmes
Original Music: Gil Melle
Special Effects: James Shourt, Albert Whitlock, John Whitney Sr., Douglas Trumbull
Written by Nelson Gidding from the novel by Michael Crichton
Produced and Directed by
Robert Wise

 

I’ve reviewed this favorite Sci-fi thriller several times, and with each revisit have enjoyed adding new material.

Stanley Kubrick’s lauded 2001: A Space Odyssey was not immediately followed by very many high-class Sci-fi epics. One of the few that hass managed not to date too badly is Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain, which thrilled 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 taps 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.

Arrow’s new Blu-ray promises much — a new restored image from a 4K scan. Do you enjoy futuristic technology and ominous bio-jeopardy? The Andromeda Strain is fascinating, even when it fumbles a dramatic detail or two.

The show begins like 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 a classified program called Project Scoop, the space probe was specifically designed to search for life forms in outer space. Something the capsule has picked up kills everyone in town within minutes. In response, secret military authorities scramble a special scientific-medical team to a classified location in Nevada where waits a 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 known before?

If the thrills in this tale rely 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 carries both rewards and minor drawbacks. It’s a serious attempt at intelligent Science Fiction, a welcome rarity.

 

The storyline is relentlessly literal — like the no-nonsense director Wise. The entire first hour is spent rounding up a 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 (and fancifully extrapolated) equipment on view. As envisioned by crack production designer Boris Leven, most of the technology looks terrific. By 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 we see 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.

Screenwriter Nelson Gidding’s attempt to humanize the proceedings is fairly successful. The military men and politicians carry just as much procedural exposition as do the lead characters, and are well 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, and playfully refuses to cooperate. His comic asides into the TV monitors are a welcome break from the sober tension of the rest of the story.

The heavy drama is borne by the four leads, who must 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 best. Faux-hardboiled Kate Reid carries most of the comedy with her smart remarks. Her Ruth Leavitt ends up letting the team down concealing a medical condition. A colleague makes excuses for her by blaming the non-disclosure of her ailment on prejudice and fear, but the fact remains that Ruth’s irresponsibility jeopardizes the mission. We also have a hard time believing that the security-minded Project Wildfire wouldn’t have uncovered her medical issues.

James Olson and Arthur Hill perform far better than the film’s detractors say they do, 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!”

That 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 exceedingly well 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 wearing a radiation suit in On the Beach, Olsen and Hill search the town in plastic bio-hazard getups, 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 make interesting use of static compositions, reminding us that eighteen years earlier, Boris Leven helped design the visually quirky Invaders from Mars.

Of all the late ’60s attempts to use split-screen imagery (The Thomas Crown Affair, The Boston Strangler), this is the most successful. Arthur Hill’s Dr. Stone later experiences a nightmare memory of Piedmont and its corpses, also conveyed through split-screen technique. It ingeniously introduces a new image of Stone’s own wife dead back in Washington. The alien organism hasn’t killed anybody outside New Mexico: the split screens show Dr. Stone’s ‘real’ memories of the day, and his imagination adds a ‘virtual’ vision of his worst fear. It’s split-screen psychology, and quite effective.

The fact that the doctors rescue an unaccountably living baby always hooks viewers unmoved by grim Sci-fi plagues. This is Crichton’s best plot gimmick — the 1971 audiences with whom I saw The Andromeda Strain took 64 dead citizens in stride, and might have been curious to see the world depopulated by a Space Germ. But one cute, crying baby grabbed their emotions and focused the jeopardy at the personal level. Every cut-back to the crying baby increased their concern.

 

When people call The Andromeda Strain Crichton’s best book, 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,’ and must hastily backpedal to reverse his demand. Several dialogue lines are nearly direct quotes from the old movie about the Tinkertoy robot from space: It FEEDS on energy!

The communications system at Wildfire is taken down by a mechanical glitch, the same kind of low-tech snafu seen in Fail-Safe, the WW3 shocker that laid the blame for Armageddon on machines instead of people. The glich ironically saves our planet from calamity. 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, in the past tense. This scene always confuses viewers, and undercuts the drama: the calm ‘voices from the future’ reveal the fact that the world will not be destroyed. Miscalculations with flash-forwards undermine audience satisfaction in other movies from this time as well, notably No Blade of Grass and The Anderson Tapes.

The film’s Project Wildfire is a more impressive version of super-secret, somewhat malevolent military-industrial facilities seen in earlier Sci-fi films. 1965’s The Satan Bug proposes a similar underground desert facility that is in fact a germ warfare development station, one with really pitiful security. Crichton must have been a ’50s Sci-fi buff, as he copies 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. Classic Sci-fi often depicted Big Science in service to Big Military. Destination Moon came right out with the statement that American space exploration was really a program to militarily dominate the world. In Andromeda, when old Dr. Dutton stumbles onto a bio-warfare map, he bluntly suggests that the Wildfire Project may a hoax, that Project Scoop’s real mission is to scour outer space for new biological weapons. In the bigger timeline of paranoid Sci-fi concepts, that’s quite a precedent. The issue disappeared for a decade, until Ridley Scott’s 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. In need of a dynamic conclusion, Michael Crichton borrows the time-bomb countdown tension device introduced in Invaders from Mars. The gag is an awkward narrative device, but one that earns audience approval. They loved the extra kick provided by Dr. Hall’s desperate attempt to reach the disarm station with his special red key.

The laser-ray chase up ladders leading out of a secret lab didn’t work so well, when Paul Verhoeven lifted it for the ending fizzle of The Hollow Man (2000).

 

The Andromeda Strain’s computers are incredibly efficient for 1970, or for that matter, 2019. 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, reliable 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 pluck info out of the air as nonchalantly as do the space men in Star Trek.

Audiences didn’t recoil at the illogic of certain scenes, which 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 flattering — are they just clock-watching civil servants?  At least they’re not a pack of crybabies, like the lily-livered astronauts in the now hilarious misfire Marooned.

Crichton envisions his space germ as a life form based on an alien crystalline structure. After wiping out Piedmont, it apparently mutates to a second form that no longer coagulates blood, but instead dissolves human flesh and certain similarly structured plastics. A jet pilot and his Polycron oxygen mask are reduced to bones and some metal fittings. Just being in our environment made the mutation occur. 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 attacks 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.

The post mortem for Andromeda 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 associated with inconsistent monster movies, like the Steve Sekely version of 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 CineSavant.

 

Other less critical 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?  Well, the project is being constructed by the military, so I suppose that gets a pass.

But another shaggy plot device, the paper wedgie that conveniently puts Wildfire out of contact with Washington, is 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 where are the standard communications check-ins that would occur every time a new shift began. Hasn’t anyone heard of backup systems?  Am I making readers angry yet?

The final weakness is that Ruth Leavitt’s epilepsy problem is used to stall the discovery of 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 demonstrates 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 space bugs would have been defeated before lunchtime.

At CineSavant 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 (!?) that blocks the stairwell access door!  See?  Inspired screenwriting can overcome any conflict of logic!

 

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 were audiences for a sinister computer movie, just after the thrilling 2001. The Andromeda Strain avoids a political context, but its martial-law scenes now come 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 intervention that blocks Mrs. Stone’s phone call. Those government spies are messing around with our civil liberties, dude!  It all now seems rather sinister. Perhaps when our country’s military-corporate leaders exhaust other bogus sources of fear, will tell us they’re suspending our rights protect usd from germs from space.

That’s gotta be one pissed-off Monkey!

A number of lab animals are seen being 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 trailer company executive I know, Jon Bloom, was one of Robert Wise’s assistants on Andromeda. He told me the whole story.

Robert Wise’s claim is true. 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 wore 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 seen 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 feels that the scene was needed because audiences had so far only heard a lot of talk about deadly germs. To involve them more directly they were given a realistic demonstration of how a bio-agent works, something that looked undeniably real. The monkey and the crying baby express the consequences of an invisible ‘monster’ that was impossible to show directly.

I don’t think that the fact that the monkey didn’t actually die is much of an excuse. It obviously suffered as it choked into unconsciousness. 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. 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).


 

Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of The Andromeda Strain is billed as a new restoration by Arrow Films, from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. To me it looks sharper and cleaner than the Universal Blu-ray from 2015. Even the cliché titles made from floating computer text, look interesting. Gil Mellé’s eccentric electronic music score still stands out. The original soundtrack lp came in a hexagonally-shaped novelty album cover, to mimic the form of the film’s crystalline germ.

Older discs gave us many subtitle choices; this Blu-ray has only English. Selected 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 recall of 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 an older interview, 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.

Of the new extras, the best by far is lengthy discussion by the smooth talking, quick-thinking Kim Newman, who accurately associates The Andromeda Strain with a history of movies about plagues, pandemics, and monsters alien and domestic that spread their havoc in a plague-like manner. It’s a subject I find fascinating and Newman does a bang-up job of it.

I list the rest of Arrow’s extra’s below, to finish with an unsolicited, self-serving personal note: 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 the year before at National General’s fancy Westwood Theater, 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.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Andromeda Strain
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good – Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements (from Arrow literature): Audio commentary by critic Bryan Reesman; A New Strain of Science Fiction, a new appreciation by critic Kim Newman; The Andromeda Strain: Making The Film, a featurette from 2001 featuring interviews with director Robert Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding; A Portrait of Michael Crichton, a featurette from 2001 featuring an interview with author Michael Crichton; Cinescript Gallery, highlights from Gidding’s annotated, illustrated shooting script; Trailer, TV spots & radio spots, Image gallery. BD-ROM: PDF of the 192-page ”cinescript” with diagrams and production designs. Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Corey Brickley. On the first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring an essay by Peter Tonguette.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
May 24, 2019
(6016andr)

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About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.