Film and TV you might not have checked out but really should…
Starring: Arthur Hill, James Olson, David Wayne, Kate Reid
Directed by: Robert Wise / written by: Nelson Gidding (based on the novel by Michael Crichton)
What’s it about?
A group of scientists are brought together to investigate and contain a deadly extra-terrestrial virus before it spreads…
In review – why you should see it
Based on the hit 1969 novel written by Michael Crichton (who would subsequently write and direct Westworld and later on pen arguably his most successful literary work: Jurassic Park), The Andromeda Strain is a science fiction thriller that concerns the efforts of a scientific team to contain the outbreak of a biological infection when an unknown micro-organism is returned to Earth from space.
Produced and directed by Robert Wise, who previously helmed SF classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (and would go on to direct Star Trek: The Motion Picture), The Andromeda Strain is more of a cerebral and speculative affair as opposed to a pacey, action-packed and crowd-pleasing adventure. So, whilst it may seem lethargic and ponderous to a modern audience – and it most definitely has a slow-burn, intellectually-driven quality to it – the ideas and scenarios it presents are non-the-less intriguing and even a little terrifying.
The main cast comprises Arthur Hill as Dr. Jeremy Stone, James Olson as Dr. Mark Hall, David Wayne as Dr. Charles Dutton and Kate Reid as Dr. Ruth Leavitt – specialists assembled by the U.S. military to retrieve a downed satellite thought to have brought a mysterious contagion with it from a small isolated town in New Mexico whose population, with the exception of a young baby and homeless man, have all died. Transported to an advanced, multi-level underground laboratory facility known as ‘Wildfire’ (equipped with a nuclear self-destruct system), the team find themselves pressed into an increasingly desperate race against time to understand the source of the contamination – codenamed ‘Andromeda’ – and how to combat it, discover the reason why the two survivors were unaffected and prevent any possibility of a wide-spread pandemic.
The story unfolds steadily and, again, although the pacing may be challenging to some (the sequences depicting the various decontamination procedures the characters undergo might be particularly testing for those of that disposition), it’s the interplay between the key cast members (the highlight of the group undoubtedly being Kate Reid’s grouchy Dr. Leavitt) and the ideas and themes posited in The Andromeda Strain that make for an often fascinating watch. There’s the obvious scientific interest in terms of how the team apply the expertise of their various fields in the study and diagnosis of the infection (and the technology and methods employed to carry out their work) but there’s also an ethical and moral standpoint as the true purpose of the military’s project ‘Scoop’ and the Wildfire facility become known and a strong philosophical component as the identity of Andromeda as a living alien organism is discussed, as is the “what if?” theory that the infection may simply be a method of one life-form attempting to establish communication with another. Yet, it’s the overall lethal nature of the micro-organism’s biology that facilitates the terrifying aspect of The Andromeda Strain and the possibility that despite all the technology, knowledge and skill available at our disposal the fate of the human race may be sealed by the inability to control something it doesn’t understand.
As a production, The Andromeda Strain though quaint by today’s standards holds-up well for its time and is especially noteworthy for the effects work designed by 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Douglas Trumbull (who would collaborate with Wise again on Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and the inventive use of the split-screen technique in a number of scenes. The set designs are straightforward and have a believably utilitarian and functional quality that, despite the hi-tech nature of the equipment, adds a sense of authenticity.
Working from Nelson Gidding’s screenplay, Robert Wise directs with efficiency and attention to detail, rising to whatever is required, building a feeling of eeriness in the earlier scenes with Hill and Olson as their protective-suited characters explore the corpse-littered New Mexico town (enhanced by Richard H. Kline’s cinematography) whilst proving equally adept when cranking up the tension and suspense as the film’s frantic final act unfolds. Gil Melle’s unconventional soundtrack adds a suitable touch of techno-electronica to a thought-provoking and enjoyable science fiction film from a bygone era.
The Andromeda Strain would once again be adapted as a television mini-series in 2008, produced by Ridley Scott and with a cast that included Benjamin Bratt and Lost’s Daniel Dae Kim.
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