Synopsis: Directed with clinical precision by Robert Wise, this record of the earth’s first biological crisis is perhaps the most painstakingly authentic science fiction thriller ever made. When a satellite falls to earth near a remote New Mexico village, the recovery team finds everyone in the area dead except an infant and an old derelict. The survivors are brought to a five story underground lab-one of the most elaborate and intricate sets ever assembled in Hollywood-where scientists attempt to determine the nature of the deadly microbe before it starts a world-wide epidemic. A trailblazer in the realm of science-fact, The Andromeda Strain is based on Michael Crichton’s best selling novel that created national paranoia for its topical relevance to the first moon landing.
The Andromeda Strain (1971) 8.5
‘The Andromeda Strain’ is a film that I stumbled on while binging on films from the library, some 15 years ago. I had no idea what it was, but I had gotten through the more obvious films that they had in their laserdisc collection (remember those? ) and started to dig deeper.
That’s how I discovered this “hidden” gem, and generally broadened my appreciation of cinema; they had such an vast array of material – it was a real film-lover’s dream. I was hardly a cinephile, but I was getting started on a journey that continues to this day.
I was astonished by ‘Andromeda’ from the get-go! And I simply could not believe that I had not heard about it before. How could it be that this film wasn’t being talked about? Why wasn’t it ever mentioned in “best of” lists, or referred to in pop culture? In my opinion, this was a film that deserved acclaim, if only for making a thriller out of a purely science-based and character-driven vehicle.
I adore the methodical, step-by-step, nature of the film. I find it quite impressive that they managed to make a process which would normally be tedious (not just being subjected to it, but hearing about it), into something fascinating, if not wholly riveting. I mean, really, aside from scientists, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to watch four people do experiments in a race against the clock. Even I find the idea dull, so thank goodness I didn’t know what the film was about ahead of time.
What’s great about ‘Andromeda’ is that the filmmakers found a way to explain to their audience what is going on without stooping down to having the characters tell each other information that they should already know very well (ex: “As you know, Jimmy, your mother and I had you before we got married” ). That is the mark of lazy, or piss-poor, writing; the writers couldn’t find ways -or be bothered- to establish things in a more natural way.
By having a few newcomers at the core of their team, the team leader had no choice but to brief everyone, and, consequently, us, about what was going on or what to expect. And since each scientist had his/her own specialty, sometimes explanations were needed so that everyone knew what was going on with a team member’s progress. They didn’t dumb the characters down or spoon-feed the audience, which was the perfect way to go.
‘The Andromeda Strain’ is a very a slow film, in that there’s pretty much no action. Basically, after the first sequence in Piedmont, NM, the thrills derive from the scientific revelations/discoveries being made by our team of scientists. There’s plenty of drama and intensity along the way, but it’s not visceral – it’s more of an intellectual piece. Fans of action films beware.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
I quite enjoyed the casting choices, even though none of them are spellbinding. I liked that they all seemed real, down-to-earth, and perfectly suited for the situation at hand – there’s no star power or glamour here. I especially liked our feisty heroine: while she is also the weak link of the team, I enjoyed her sarcasm and her proud, tough-as-nails demeanour. Without a doubt, she is the standout character of the piece – the others are all more intellectual, less emotional, so harder to relate to.
One of the things that may be a deterrent to some viewers is the technological side of the film – not just in the film techniques, but also in the technology shown on screen. A lot of it, even the music/sound effects, dates the film considerably – you know that it’s a late-’60s or early-’70s film. However, if considered in its proper context, it’s still effective: after all, what this team faces and what they have to accomplish remains the same, even if the methods have changed.
In my opinion, ‘The Andromeda Strain’ is one of the great science fiction films of the ’70s. It was made by none other than Robert Wise, the man who gave us the sci-fi classic ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ – as well as the woefully under-valued ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’. Aside from that misfire of an ending, it’s a gripping piece that is intelligent and remains topical to this day.
It’s the kind of film that makes people like me watch so many motion pictures, on a mad, endless quest to find other gems that have been lost in time, due to neglect or misunderstanding. I owe much to movies like ‘The Andromeda Strain’.
Nota Bene: a TV mini-series based on the same novel was made in 2008. I’m curious to see what a modern adaptation of it will yield.
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