Day six of my own little Robert Wise Film Festival
The Andromeda Strain is possibly the greatest science fiction film ever made. I know that is very sweeping statement, so I’ll qualify it by adding that it is one of the few films made that genuinely deserve the label of “science fiction,” meaning stories in which speculative science is at the core of the plot.
2001: A Space Odyssey is probably a better film, but it really only qualifies as science fiction if you consider metaphysics to be a science. Most all other films we normally classify as science fiction, or SF, are really just fantasy, action or horror stories set in a futuristic setting.
The film starts out with two soldiers in a high-tech (for 1971) van looking for a crashed satellite in Piedmont, New Mexico, population sixty-something. Some unknown bad thing happens to them. Pictures from a reconnaissance plane show a shocking sight. Apparently everyone in the town is dead. The authorities call a “Wildfire Alert,” summoning four scientists, all but one of them somewhat reluctant, to a super-secret underground germ warfare laboratory in Nevada. Two of scientists, Stone (Arthur Hill) and Hall (James Olson), fly directly to the town in space suits and find that almost every single resident literally dropped in their tracks, their blood turned to powder in their veins. Some went insane before they died and two of them, a baby and an old wino, are miraculously still alive. They take the survivors and the satellite back to the lab, where Stone pressures the White House to call up a “Directive 712,” an executive order to cauterize the area around the town with a nuclear bomb.
What they find on the satellite when they get back to the lab is Andromeda, an organism that defies all the normal rules of Earth-like life and mutates as it grows. Their only hope to cure it is to find out what a perfectly healthy baby boy has in common with an old derelict. What they find out is that organism feeds directly on energy and that detonating the A-bomb over the town would only spread it across the entire planet. They barely call off the bombing in time.
But then the organism mutates into something that threatens to eat through the lab’s defenses and break out. This triggers the lab’s last-ditch defense mechanism, an atomic bomb.
To those raised on the brainless action fare that pollutes movie theaters these days, The Andromeda Strain will probably seem interminably slow. Much of the film is a lot of people standing around looking at video screens and computer readouts. But what the characters see on those screens and how they react ratchets up the tension with every turn of the screw. The performances are universally fine, with the actors keeping things low-key and restrained, just like you would expect scientists to be.
To me, the real appeal of this film is the fact that it shows scientists acting like scientists and makes it seem exciting. We follow the logic of their deduction step by methodical step, puzzling like they do every time Andromeda behaves in a way we don’t expect.
This film is only available on wide screen on DVD and that is the way to see it. It was originally rated G when first released but it now carries the PG rating, mostly for very mild nudity and one scene in which a body’s wrist is slashed, spilling its powdered blood.
I don’t have much to add to my original review. The Andromeda Strain still stands up to scrutiny after 34 years. I just wanted to add an observation about the one change made between Michael Chrichton’s original novel and the film. In the book, the main characters are four male scientists. By taking the most outspoken, iconoclastic character a woman, screenwriter Nelson Gidding can be credited with a stroke of genius. Making her the middle-aged, plain-looking but forceful character played by Kate Reid was another masterstroke, making it even more believable that she would hide the secret that the character keeps in the story. Her career path in science would have been hard enough just being a woman.
Watching the film again, I wondered if a younger modern audience would even get some of the then current cultural references in the firm. Do kids these days know or even care who Onassis was? Do they remember the SDS?