Have You Seen… ‘The Andromeda Strain’?

Film and TV you might not have checked out but really should…

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Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson) and Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) investigate in ‘The Andromeda Strain’ (image credit: Universal Pictures).

Year: 1971

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.

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The ‘Wildfire’ team assemble to assess the threat of the contagion (image credit: Universal Pictures).

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.

Geek fact!

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.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

TV Review: ‘Westworld’ S1 EP1 “The Original”

Starring:  Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton

Series created by:  Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy

Written by:  Jonathan Nolan / Episode directed by:  Jonathan Nolan

What’s it about?

The futuristic theme park ‘Westworld’, populated by artificial beings called ‘hosts’, allows its visitors to live out their greatest fantasies against the backdrop of the Old West.  When an update to the hosts’ programming triggers strange and unruly behaviour, the park’s creators find their efforts to improve realism may have produced dangerous results…

Episode review

Based on the cult classic 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton (mastermind author of noted SF works Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain), HBO’s television adaptation of Westworld has been developed for the smaller screen by Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest) and Lisa Joy (Burn Notice) together with co-producer J.J. Abrams.

The concept of Artificial Intelligence and how it relates to human nature is something that has been explored endlessly in science fiction and in various forms of media.  HBO’s Westworld necessarily expands on what could only be touched upon in Crichton’s 88-minute film and like Ronald D. Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica, what’s presented here is much more complex and cerebral.  On a particular level it’s unnerving as the robot (or more precisely, android) ‘attractions’ of the Westworld theme park – known as ‘hosts’ – are becoming more realistic and virtually indistinguishable from genuine human beings as their creators strive for that perfection of realism and efficiency – something that is firmly entrenched in the zeitgeist of the technologically driven age we live in.

Written and directed by Nolan, “The Original” assembles a strong cast which includes Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright and most impressively Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris.  Much of the episode’s focus centres on Wood’s Dolores and it’s via her ‘character’ and newcomer Teddy (Marsden) that we learn of the Groundhog Day like existence of Westworld’s A.I. lifeforms as they are programmed to reset and repeat the same patterns day after day, with little variation, to service the stories implemented by the park’s engineers.  It seems here that Wood is being positioned as the series’ main protagonist and the True Blood actress proves effective in being naturally emotive, switching her performance as she becomes subtly more machine like when events lead to questions of the hosts’ existence and ultimate purpose.

Yet it’s the critically lauded and awards worthy Hopkins and Harris that provide the biggest draw.  As Westworld’s founder, Dr. Robert Ford, Hopkins conveys the intellectual qualities and complexities of the character with absolute aplomb as we meet a man at the leading edge of technology, constantly pushing the boundaries of perfection to deliver a more efficient and more capable ‘product’.  Ed Harris (sharing some truly chilling scenes with Wood and Marsden) is equally compelling as the mysterious ‘Man in Black’, providing a presence that’s as foreboding as it is unsettling.

The visual scope of Westworld is astounding, the grand, sweeping outback landscapes beautifully captured and arguably rivals the cinematography of some of cinema’s most beloved Westerns.  As a director, it’s to Nolan’s credit that he is skilful in presenting the more intimate character moments, especially in the cold, sterile lab settings where the hosts are examined and ‘questioned’ about their abnormal behaviour.  It’s here that Nolan utilises, to great effect, numerous close-ups that capture every nuance of the actors’ facial expressions.

Nolan’s script is packed with quality dialogue that delivers intrigue, character drama and thought provoking, existential SF ideas which combined with those sumptuous visuals and a stellar cast demonstrates strong potential for the series ahead.  HBO have been looking for their next big hit to follow Game of Thrones and Westworld could certainly be it.

You can read the GBUK review of Michael Crichton’s Westworld here.

The bottom line:  Westworld opens promisingly as a superb cast helps introduce a world filled with thought provoking ideas and great dramatic potential.

Westworld airs in the UK Tuesday at 9pm on Sky Atlantic.  U.S. viewers can catch it 9pm Sunday on HBO.

HBO's 'Westworld' looks set to add new layers to the well-worn subject of artificial intelligence.

HBO’s ‘Westworld’ looks set to add new layers to the well-worn subject of artificial intelligence.

Film review: ‘Futureworld’

Year:  1976

Starring:  Peter Fonda, Blythe Danner, Arthur Hill and Yul Brynner

Directed by:  Richard T. Heffron / Written by:  Mayo Simon and George Schenck

What’s it about?

Two reporters are invited to visit the reopened Delos resort, closed down after its android ‘attractions’ malfunctioned and began murdering the guests…

In review

Having recently reviewed Westworld (which you can read here), I thought I’d take a look at its sequel.  I actually saw Futureworld a few years ago and didn’t remember it being very good but given instances where I’ve looked on things more favourably with subsequent viewings, maybe it deserved a reassessment?

Well, this is certainly not one of those instances.  Futureworld (named from the new ‘theme area’ of the Delos resort) is a prime example of an unnecessary sequel done “for the sake of it”.  The main protagonists are newspaper reporter Chuck Browning (Fonda) and television reporter Tracy Ballard (Danner), both weakly drawn and clichéd characters, the snooping reporters eager for a story/the bickering (later romancing) man/woman team up we’ve all seen before in a thousand films and television shows.  Both Fonda (who’d later star in another ill-conceived sequel – Escape from L.A.) and Danning make what work they can of the dull script with the latter the superior of the two leads, infusing a bit of fun in the Lois Lane style hijinks (an intention on the writers’ part?  There’s reference to Superman in the film with an android character named ‘Clark’, after Clark Kent).  Unfortunately Fonda’s performance is a little flat at times although he’s a little more ‘animated’ than James Brolin was in Westworld.  This aside, the two do have decent onscreen chemistry – providing at least one watchable aspect of the film.

Inevitably and predictably things eventually go awry for the two reporters as they end up on the run from murderous malfunctioning androids.  What worked in Westworld just doesn’t here and a sign that it sorely lacks the creative touches of Michael Crichton, Yul Brynner’s cameo as the Gunslinger in a bizarre fantasy dream sequence is a disservice to his Westworld character and a misuse of a fine actor (and a massive shame since it was his last screen appearance) who’s cleverly restrained and nuanced performance was the key to the prior film’s effectiveness.  It’s something that none of the performers in Futureworld are able to replicate – the sequence where Fonda and Danner are chased by android Samurai is a laughable example and fails to instil anything near resembling the chills or tension that Westworld evoked.

Other attempts to shock the viewer also fall flat – the android clones of the two central characters set loose in the final act by the evil Delos corporation (another cliché?) only upholds the above point and again lacks what was achieved so effectively in Crichton’s film.

Futureworld also looks rather cheap, granted Westworld didn’t exactly have a massive budget, but the production design is rather uninspired and the direction workmanlike leaving the film feeling more like a slightly souped-up television production.

The bottom line:  Futureworld is a poor and completely unnecessary follow up to a little gem of SF cinema, with nothing really to recommend it.  You’ll laugh and you’ll cry for the wrong reasons – stick with the far superior Westworld instead.

Futureworld is available on Blu-ray (select territories) and DVD.

'Futureworld' features an android named Clark Kent - guess he didn't want his face associated with the film!

‘Futureworld’ features an android named Clark Kent – guess he didn’t want his face associated with the film!

Have you seen… ‘Westworld’?

The films you may not have seen that are definitely worth a look…

Year: 1973

Starring:  Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin

Director:  Michael Crichton

What’s it about?

In the near future, Peter Martin accompanies friend John Blane on a vacation to the high-tech $1,000 per day adult theme park known as Delos, split into three themed areas – Roman World, Medieval World and Western World.  During their stay in Western World (aka ‘Westworld’) the android ‘characters’ begin to malfunction and the two men are soon running for their lives…

In review

Written and directed by the late Michael Crichton, author of The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park, Westworld presents the chilling notion of technology gone awry that holds just as much relevance today as it did back in the 1970s.  It’s an idea that Crichton would adapt just as successfully to Jurassic Park (whereas the park’s attractions would be biological as opposed to mechanical, the failure of technology would still precipitate disaster) but is perhaps more unsettling here given that the very human-like (only discernible from real people by inspection of the palms of their hands) androids programmed to fulfil the fantasies that the guests take for granted in safety and comfort, would unexpectedly turn on them.

Yul Brynner, in homage to his character from classic Western The Magnificent Seven is key to the film’s success by providing a virtually emotionless, cold and robotic performance as the homicidal Gunslinger.  Just as Arnold Schwarzenegger made you believe he was an unstoppable killing machine in The Terminator so does Brynner (the difference being that he was actually a damn good actor anyway), instilling fear and chills in the viewer by using simple body language and flat delivery of the little dialogue he has.

There is some fun interaction between Benjamin and Brolin (Brolin’s character constantly prodding at Martin until he starts to loosen up and ease into the spirit of things) and until Brynner appears the tone of the film is fairly light but it is then that Westworld really draws you in.  Although Brynner’s ‘character’ is gunned down twice with relative ease by Martin, it adds gravity to his return the third time as Westworld starts building to a terrifying and tense climax as the Gunslinger (upgraded with infra-red vision) pursues Martin relentlessly through the park and the corridors of its control centre.  With the staff and guests murdered by the android attractions, Martin stands alone against a machine without conscience.  The influences on James Cameron’s afore-mentioned Terminator are clear, also providing the basis for the hilarious “Itchy & Scratchy Land” episode of The Simpsons (back when it was still good).

Why you should watch it

Westworld is a gem of science fiction cinema that’s a tense and unsettling ride, particularly in its last half hour, with a truly chilling and iconic performance from the late, great Yul Brynner.

Standout moment

Martin and Blane have not long since arrived in Westworld and enter a saloon, an android Gunslinger enters and starts to taunt Martin.  Blane convinces Martin to get into the spirit of things by shooting down the Gunslinger – little do they know that it won’t be the last they see of him…

Did you know?

The late Majel Barrett – wife of Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry – has a cameo appearance in the bordello scenes as ‘Miss Carrie’.

Watch it if you like…

Jurassic Park, The Terminator

Westworld is currently available on Blu-ray (select territories) and DVD from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.

Yul Brynner's chilling and mechanical performance in 'Westworld' is key to the film's effectiveness.

Yul Brynner’s chilling and mechanical performance in ‘Westworld’ is key to the film’s effectiveness.