Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

This superior science fiction outing pits four dedicated scientists against a microscopic menace capable of destroying all life on Earth. Its critics have labeled it slow-moving and overlong, but I find it intellectually exciting. Its thrills come not from action sequences (though there’s doozy at the climax), but from the time-sensitive need to determine: What is the Andromeda Strain? How can it be destroyed? Why did a 69-year-old man and a six-month baby survive when Andromeda wiped out a New Mexico town of 68 people?

The scientists converge on Wildfire, a biological threat containment lab in Nevada, when a satellite returns to Earth with an unknown (alien?) organism. The Wildfire team consists of: Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill), the leader; Ruth Levitt (Kate Reid), the cynic; Mark Hall (James Olson), the passionate physician; and Charlie Dutton (David Wayne), the skeptic who wonders if their goal should be destroying Andromeda. You could say that there’s a fifth member of the team and that’s the Wildfire lab itself. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is a virtual tour of the five-level, underground facility as the team goes through decontamination and immunization procedures.

Director Robert Wise divides the film into two parts. The first half details the recovery of the satellite and the discovery of what it has done to Piedmont, New Mexico. There’s a chilling scene in which Stone and Hall explore the ghost town of dead bodies. As Hall cuts a vein on one of the corpses, powdered blood pours out—an indication of what Andromeda does to its victims. The second half of the film shifts the action to Wildfire, where the scientists turn detective and try to solve the mystery of why the old man and the baby survived.

Part of the appeal for me is that The Andromeda Strain includes one of my favorite plot devices: the forming of a team in which each member is introduced to the audience (I call this the Robin Hood theme since that’s the first film I can remember that used it). I also admire how Wise uses scrolls at the bottom of the screen to convey the time and locale. It’s an obvious device now, but The Andromeda Strain may have been one of the first films to use it.

Surprisingly, Wise was not a science fiction specialist, though he also directed the splendid The Day the Earth Stood. He was equally at home with musicals (The Sound of Music, West Side Story),  horror (The Body Snatcher), and psychological drama (The Haunting). He spent the early 1940s as a editor, working on films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Citizen Kane, and My Favorite Wife. I think that experience provided him with insight into the pacing of a film narrative. In The Andromeda Strain, he takes a documentary-like, scientific drama and turns it into an exiting, time-driven mystery--that's no easy feat.

The lack of well-known stars also works to the film's advantage. The nominal star, Arthur Hill, forged his career in television, guest starring series such as The Fugitive, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Defenders. In the 1970s,  he finally got his show as Owen Marshall, Counselor-at-Law, an above-average legal drama that ran on ABC for three seasons. On the big screen, Hill's most significant role prior to Andromeda was as Paul Newman's friend in Harper.

I first saw The Andromeda Strain as a teenager with my sister and best friend. I remember liking it, especially the ending. However, it wasn’t until I saw it on television many years later that it became one of my favorite movies.

12 comments:

  1. Rick, I remember seeing this as the bottom half of a double bill at a drive in in the 70's with Silent Running. Remember that one?

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  2. You should do a blog on the eco-friendly "Silent Running" sometime. I first saw it on TV; it's a unique film since there's basically one star...although one can't discount the presence of Huey, Dewey, and Louie.

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  3. rick I do not remember this film well enough to do a complete blog what I do know is this.The film was Bruce Dern's first Staring Role .Most of The flim wasa shot on a Aircraft Carrier, I can not remember which one.The soundtracdk LP was on Decca Records and had a song by Joan Baez. The "Forrest Sets" were used on Battlestar Galactica,and Buck Rogers TV shows.

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  4. Holy cow do I remember The Andromeda Strain. I think it was of the first true scifi films I ever saw. The film was magnicent, and the acting was ok...however I thought James Olson played his role in a somewhat rushed manner. I almost had the impression he wanted to get off the set and collect his pay check.

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  5. Austin, I was never a big James Olson fan, but liked him pretty well in Andromeda Strain. He did get the cool scene where he's shot with the laser (what I probably remembered best from seeing it as a kid). But I think the real star of the film is the Wildfire facility itself.

    Paul2, I forgot about the Joan Baez song in Silent Running. Ah, the 1970s!

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  6. This is one of my favorite movies. I read the book by Michael Crichton. I think it stands up well as old as it is because such a virus could indeed threaten our lives today. I saw the remake mini series last year and it was awful. The story was up-dated, but it wasn't nearly as good as this version. Speaking of The Day The Earth Stood Still, that is one of my all time favorite movies. I did not like the remake of it either.

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  7. Rick, it is good to see this reposted at the Cafe! The Wildfire lab is indeed fascinating. I was also intrigued because one of the scientists has not told the truth about something that could have caused the downfall of all of their work. Very interesting science fiction classic and excellent profile!

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  8. I realized I had read your article, but didn't leave a comment -- duh! I agree completely -- Andromeda Strain is a huge favorite of mine too. And my favorite part is also the part about how Wildfire is set up as the team goes through it. I thought the case was perfect in their individual parts (don't you just love the curmudgeonly Ruth?) Very enjoyable trip through a wonderful movie, Rick.

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  9. While I enjoyed reading your review, Rick, I am less enthusiastic about the film because of the casting. Yikes! That woman. Who on earth was she? It's okay to cast a plain jane, in fact, I liked the idea. But jeez, she was so damned unpleasant and nasty looking. I'm not crazy about Arthur Hill either, though I can tolerate him.

    I think Hill was always meant to be a second banana. There I tolerate him fine.

    James Olsen is another one I could have done without. At the very least they could have given us one hunk to look at. I know, I know, I'm sounding SO SHALLOW!

    But really, this film has such a tacky feel to it. The story is great, of course, and I've always meant to read the book.

    Go ahead, bar me from your blog. I deserve it. ;)

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    1. Yvette, we'd never bar you! However, one of the things I really like about ANDROMEDA is its low-key cast. I was bummed when the TV miniseries remake went for a pretty-guy lead in Benjamin Bratt. He's a decent actor, but--for me--he lacks Arthur Hill's conviction and "everyman quality."

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  10. WannabegafapastaJune 23, 2013 at 8:34 PM

    I'd just like to point out that Robert Wise didn't direct "I walked with a zombie", Jacques Tourneur did. Wise directed "The body snatcher" (which had the same producer as the former, Val Lewton, hence the possible confusion).

    Regarding "The Andromeda strain" itself, I pretty much agree with you; Wildfire is technologically gorgeous to look at, and the everyman quality of the cast (who deliver a pretty solid acting) adds to the semi-documentary tone and general believability of the plot.

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    1. You are right, of course, about Wise's first horror pic and I've made the correction. Thanks!

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