Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

The Andromeda Strain is a movie I’ve seen several times before. This was one of the more important early 1970s Hollywood science fiction films but has it stood the test of time? The answer to that is that in some ways it has, in others it hasn’t.

This adaptation of a Michael Crichton thriller was an ambitious undertaking for director Robert Wise. It was a project he was keen to take on. Wise attempted just about every possible film genre during his long career and his science fiction movies are always interesting at the very least. I’m personally not a fan of The Day the Earth Stood Still but it was undeniably a very influential movie in the genre, and in a rather different way The Andromeda Strain was as well.

The movie starts with an attempt to retrieve a US satellite that has landed near the small town of Piedmont in New Mexico. The retrieval team makes a surprising and grim discovery. Every single human being in the town is dead, and within a few minutes the members of the retrieval team are dead as well. That’s when the alarm bells start to ring, and Project Wildfire is activated. This is a very secret project for dealing with the possibility of contamination crisis caused by organisms brought back to Earth from space. And it’s fairly clear that the satellite, launched as part of the very secret Project Scoop, has brought back just such an organism.

But how can any organism kill so quickly? Most of the townspeople appear to have been struck with extraordinary suddenness. On the other hand it’s clear that a tiny handful survived for quite a while, and two of the town’s 68 inhabitants are in fact still alive.

Dr Jeremy Stone and his team of hand-picked scientists now have to isolate the organism involved, find out how it works, and most importantly of all they have to find a way to stop it or (preferably) destroy it. They are authorised to take rather drastic measures. Dr Stone can request the President to order a nuclear strike on the site of any suspected contamination site and that seem likely to now be the imminent fate of Piedmont, New Mexico. Or perhaps not, as events take some unexpected turns.

Dr Stone’s scientific team will be subjected to extreme stresses and it has to be said that they don’t handle them especially well. They will also make some unsettling discoveries about the real nature of both Project Scoop and Project Wildfire.

As far as visual achievements and special effects are concerned the movie is a triumph. The special effects were about as cutting edge as you could get in 1971. There were no computer graphics effects as such in 1971, but there were scenes that were achieved by the use of computer-controlled photography so you could argue that this movie really did point the way forward in that area. These advanced techniques were combined seamlessly with more traditional techniques such as the use of matte paintings. The movie pulls off some stunning visual tour-de-forces that still look as impressive as they did in the early 70s.

Wise, always a skillful craftsman, handles the suspense elements with consummate skill. This is a very tense and exciting film.

Wise deliberately chose actors who were not major stars, and he gets generally excellent performances from them. Arthur Hill is particularly good as Dr Stone.

The real star is arguably the ultra high tech Wildfire laboratory, supposedly in a remote part of Nevada, and looking more like the interior of a starship than a scientific laboratory.

The movie requires an immense amount of exposition. The audience needs to be told (or at least that was the assumption on which Wise and his production team were working) on the inner workings of the facility and on Project Wildfire. The movie is generally pretty successful in getting all this exposition across without the results seeming inordinately clumsy. And the technobabble and the gadgets are great fun.

Where the movie works less well is where it tries to include a political message. The conspiracy theory paranoia and the preachiness work strongly against it (and preachiness had been an equally serious flaw in Wise’s much earlier The Day the Earth Stood Still). It’s all very predictable and rather tiresome. One can imagine Fox Mulder loving this movie as a kid.

If you can put up with these moments of very heavy handed propaganda The Andromeda Strain is a gripping science thriller and in any case it’s worth seeing just for the impressive and very cool visuals (which haven’t dated at all). So it’s still pretty much essential viewing for any self-respecting fan of cinematic science fiction.

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