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THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971)

"I’ve planned our work in three stages. One: detection. The first step is to confirm that an organism is present. Two: characterisation. How is it structured? How does it work? And three: control. How to contain – and exterminate."
  

Director:
  Robert Wise

Starring:  Arthur Hill, James Olson, David Wayne, Kate Reid, Paula Kelly, George Mitchell, Ramon Bieri

Screenplay:  Nelson Gidding, based upon the novel by Michael Crichton

Synopsis: Two air force personnel approach the small town of Piedmont, New Mexico, to retrieve a satellite that has crashed there. While surveying the town, the men are disturbed to see buzzards circling overhead. As they drive into town in a van equipped with tracking devices, the men report to their superiors at the Vandenberg Air Force Base. The officers at Vandenberg hear the men react in horror as they find dead bodies scattered all over the town. Then there is a scream, and the line goes dead…. Major Manchek (Ramon Bieri) orders a fly-over of Piedmont. What he sees in the resulting film makes him call a ‘Wildfire alert’. The air force contacts Dr Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hall) with the message "there’s a fire". Dr Stone is informed about a secret project known as ‘Scoop’, which used satellites in an attempt to collect micro-organisms from outer space. A team of scientists is collected to work with Stone: Dr Mark Hall (James Olson), Dr Charles Dutton (David Wayne) and Dr Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid). Stone and Hall are flown by helicopter to Piedmont. Stone is deeply disturbed when he sees buzzards feeding on the corpses; he orders gas bombs dropped to kill the birds, so that there is no chance of any disease being spread. Stone and Hall search the town. Most of the people seem to have dropped dead in their tracks, but the men also find an elderly couple that had time to commit suicide. The two find the truck driven by the air force officers, who are also dead. One of the men has a deep cut on his forehead which, strangely, has not bled. Similarly, the corpses of the townspeople show no sign of bloodshed, even where the buzzards attacked them. Stone and Hall use the tracking device to locate the satellite, which is in the doctor’s house. Stone is furious when he realises that the doctor opened it. Hall inspects the doctor’s body, but finds no sign of the expected lividity. Hall cuts into the doctor’s wrist, and is horrified to discover that his blood has clotted completely and turned to powder. Stone and Hall wrap the satellite in protective sheeting and carry it out to await the helicopter. Both men are astonished when they hear a baby’s cries; they find the child, which is frightened and hungry but otherwise well. As the satellite and the baby are lifted into the helicopter, Hall is suddenly attacked by an unkempt old man (George Mitchell), who then collapses in pain. As the men and the Piedmont survivors are flown away, Stone calls Washington to order a ‘712’ – the nuclear destruction of the town. Stone and Hall are joined by Dutton and Leavitt at Project Wildfire, a huge, underground scientific facility, where the team must try to find a way of destroying the alien organism, and determine how a baby and a sick old man remain immune to its deadly effects.

Comments: In the immortal words of T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, I grow old, I grow old. So old, in fact, that I can remember when having the name "Michael Crichton" attached to a film meant, "Hey, this oughta be good!" rather than, "Aieee! Run for the hills!" I can even remember when Crichton wrote novels, not just poorly disguised screenplays in novel form. The Andromeda Strain, the first of Crichton’s books to be adapted for the screen, is a first-class science fiction film based upon an equally excellent novel.

Typical of its time, the film is filled with a deep distrust of authority and a sense of paranoia that proves to be entirely justified. However, under Robert Wise’s taut direction, these feelings are present chiefly as undercurrents in a story that is part thriller, part detective story and, above all, one of the very few accurate depictions of scientific procedure ever committed to film. It has long been a theory of mine that science is the one profession that no-one has much interest in depicting in a factual manner. Compared with, say, law or medicine or police work, which writers seem to take pleasure in presenting with the highest possible degree of accuracy, science on screen tends to be speculative at best, and at worst, downright silly. Admittedly, there is a fairly simple reason for this. Contrary to popular belief (at least, popular entertainment belief), precious few scientists are consumed by a lust for power. We spend very little time doing brain transplants, resurrecting the dead, or even plotting to take over the world with our secret armies of remote-controlled flesh-eating zombies. What we do spend a great deal of time doing, however, is the same thing over and over and over again. Fascinating in an intellectual sense, and in the long-term, science on a day-to-day basis can be almost inconceivably dull. Speaking generally, it consists of proceeding in a slow and systematic manner, progressing via only the tiniest of steps and, as often as not, taking two back for every one forward. Hardly the stuff of exciting viewing, you might argue, and it would be difficult to disagree.

Thus, what makes The Andromeda Strain truly remarkable – indeed, almost unique – is that it presents science in an honest and factual manner, yet nevertheless succeeds in providing riveting entertainment. The first part of this film is an object lesson in building tension, first with the deaths of the air force officers, cleverly presented as a piece of aural horror, then with Hall and Stone’s nightmarish journey through the town of Piedmont, culminating in the grotesque wrist-cutting incident. Once the action shifts to Project Wildfire, however, the thrills become of a more cerebral nature.

We open with the wonderful sequence of the team being progressively decontaminated (kudos to Crichton and screenwriter Gidding for not shying away from the problem of the gastrointestinal tract!) and then dealing with the practical aspects of working with something that must be kept in total isolation. The organism is then characterised in a series of steps that are logical and methodical, and with a rigorous attention to detail. I am not in a position to judge how this section of the film might play to a lay audience, but for me it is both utterly fascinating, and a treat of the rarest kind. It is entirely possible to look upon science as a kind of detective work, with researchers following each tiny clue to the next; and this aspect of the profession is wonderfully captured here.

Equally praiseworthy is that the downside of the work is given just as much emphasis. The sequences showing Leavitt checking her growth media, and Stone and Leavitt scanning the satellite for the organism, go as close to depicting just how numbingly tedious science can sometimes be as anything I’ve ever seen on film. Also remarkable is how well the scientific sequences of the film blend in with the thriller aspects. Tension is maintained throughout by the cuts between the researchers isolated at Wildfire, and the air force officers discovering new and terrible evidence of the organism’s potency. These threads come together when Dutton is faced with being exposed to Andromeda due to its newly evolved ability to dissolve plastics.

The Andromeda Strain then climaxes in what for me is the least satisfactory aspect of the film: Hall’s race against time to disarm the automatic nuclear detonation device. Although true to the novel, and fully in keeping with Michael Crichton’s (then) belief in the dangers of technology, this sequence simply does not seem to fit in with the rest of the film. It plays too much like a sop for fans of conventional action movies: some "real" action after all that "intellectual" stuff. Another criticism sometimes levelled at The Andromeda Strain is that it fails to convey fully the warning against unrestrained technological development that was the basis of the book; that Crichton’s message was diluted by Robert Wise’s pleasure in his sets and special effects. While appreciating why such a criticism might be made, I do not entirely agree with it. There is certainly no denying that Wise was enamoured of the technology at his disposal. However, this seems to me to work for, rather than against the film’s central theme. The technology is dangerous precisely because it is so seductive; and because putting more and trust in it, rather than relying upon "fallible" human beings, is so very easy. The perils of this attitude are highlighted throughout the film, from the crashing of the satellite – off-course for no clear reason – to the attack upon Hall by Wildfire’s own laser defence mechanism. Best of all, though, is the revelation that the fate of the entire world has been threatened by a piece of paper becoming jammed in a "sophisticated" communication device.

While reflecting upon The Andromeda Strain, it occurred to me that such a film would never be made today – at least, not in the same form. For one thing, who bothers these days to have a good solid story behind all their special effects? And can you imagine a big-budgeted special effects extravaganza with a cast of nobodies at its centre? If it were to re-made today (oh, God, I shouldn’t have said that! Someone might hear me! Jan? You listening?), you can just imagine the cast: "John Travolta is The Serious One; Tom Cruise is The Heroic One; Bruce Willis is The Risk-Taking One; Catherine Zeta-Jones is The Female One Who Can Out-Jump The Organism But Nevertheless Screams Quite A Lot". (No, Jan, no. I was kidding, okay? Jan?)

But one of the supreme pleasures of The Andromeda Strain is the way its commitment to accuracy and credibility is underscored by its deliberately low-key casting. Make no mistake: when I called the cast "nobodies" I meant it as the highest praise. The film as a whole is helped enormously by the co-casting of four talented but totally ordinary character actors. Most significant, perhaps, is the casting of Kate Reid as Ruth Leavitt. It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast with the modern tendency to fill science fiction films with female scientists who look like they’ve just stepped off a Parisian catwalk. With her casual wardrobe, sensible haircut, lack of interest in her appearance and rotten eye-sight, Ruth Leavitt is closer to reality than I actually care to admit.

That said, the handling of The Andromeda Strain’s four central characters is not without flaws. Part of the problem, as is so often the case with a Crichton story, is that the characters tend to be drawn in strokes so broad as to approach stereotype. Only the character of Charlie Dutton seems to ring true throughout. Like Ruth Leavitt and Mark Hall, he is appalled by the wider implications of the Scoop Mission, and by the possible fate that awaits the world should the team fail in their object. However, Dutton’s anger remains secondary at all times to the project’s need for skilled, methodical and level-headed conduct. In contrast, Leavitt and Hall constantly allow their emotions to impede their work; while their liberal (read anti-Government) tendencies are clumsily (and unfairly) manifested as a lack of discipline and an inability to follow orders. In Hall’s case, this includes his not taking his recruitment seriously enough to even bother reading the Project Wildfire literature. Civilian or not, it seems hardly likely that any trained professional would behave so carelessly (for some reason, this device is seems to be a favourite of Crichton’s, being taken to an absurd extreme with the character played by Dustin Hoffman in Sphere).

In a similar way, Jeremy Stone is the conservative (read hand-in-glove-with-the-Government) type, which is translated to mean cold-blooded, evidenced by such things as his referring to the old man and the baby as "experimental subjects" rather than "patients". I also have a problem with the subplot of Ruth Leavitt’s epilepsy. Even accepting that, in the days prior to anti-discrimination legislation, she might have concealed her illness from her employers, would she really have concealed it from the other team members, knowing the desperate importance of the project? There seems no reason why she shouldn’t have confided in the obviously sympathetic Dutton, or even, as a doctor, in Hall. Having Ruth black out while checking her cultures, then not re-checking her work quite far enough back, smacks of contrivance. Aware of her blackouts, surely she would have started again, regardless of the time lost?

Also somewhat annoying is the presentation of the film’s minor female characters. Now, I know that The Andromeda Strain was made in 1970, and that things were certainly different then, but there seem to me to be a number of unnecessary sequences implying female weakness or lack of courage. When Ruth suffers a fit, it is a woman who starts a panic, screaming and running away. Again, when the severely injured Hall, trying desperately to reach a substation and prevent the destruction of Wildfire, staggers towards a female technician, her response is not to help him, but to back away in fear. There is one point when the male of the species is subjected to the same stereotypical approach: observing Hall’s awkwardness in handling the baby, Dutton chuckles, "Easy to see you’re a bachelor!" The baby is then picked up by its nurse. She’s just as unmarried as Hall, but of course, being a woman, she "instinctively" knows how to hold and nurse a baby.

But these are only quibbles, minor imperfections in one of the most satisfying and intellectually thrilling science fiction films of its era – indeed, of any era. The Andromeda Strain is science fiction in the very best sense of the expression: a film of ideas, speculative but always credible, a cautionary tale that is yet not without hope. Watching, it is impossible not to reflect upon the general direction of Michael Crichton’s career, and the rather sad journey from The Andromeda Strain and Westworld to the likes of Congo and Sphere. Also inevitable is the recognition of an exquisite irony: that the man who made his name with taut, exciting stories warning of the pitfalls of technology is now firmly associated in most people’s minds with the film that above all others is modern technology incarnate: Jurassic Park.