A Journal Of The Dark Arts
Robert Wise’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel about an alien microorganism let loose on Earth is stark, chilling, claustrophobic, tense, and all too realistic.
Science fiction movies featuring a biological outbreak are saddled with a unique tension. On one hand, they need to be speculative, to satisfy the science fiction component. And yet, pandemics happen. They, and the way we deal with them, are rooted in reality. They need to be believable and realistic. The line for the suspension of disbelief is almost tenuously thin for a movie to work. When they do, sci-fi plague movies can be almost unbearably chilling, bleak, and grim.
The Andromeda Strain is utterly believable, and that’s part of what makes it so deadly effective. Despite the fact that a good portion of the action on-screen being akin to watching clinical laboratory footage, Robert Wise’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel about an alien organism getting unleashed on work, is exponentially more terrifying, more dread-inducing, than the cruelest Slasher film or pitch black Gothic Horror.
The Andromeda Strain follows the discovery of a mysterious outbreak in a small town in Nevada. Two researchers go to retrieve Scoop 7, a satellite sent into Earth’s orbit to gather extraterrestrial materials. This satellite returned with more than just rock samples.
It doesn’t take the military Top Brass long to realize something horrible, and unknown, is at work. A crack team of scientific experts, led by Dr. Roger Stone (Arthur Hill), comprised of Dr. Charles Dutton (David Wayne), Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson), and Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid), are whiskey away to Wildfire, a Top Secret underground research facility where Scoop 7 is being analyzed.
To add to the tension, Wildfire’s outfitted with a nuclear failsafe device. Dr. Hall, an unmarried man, is entrusted with the only key that can disarm the nuclear device, which is armed automatically in the event of a security breach.
A good portion of The Andromeda Strain is made up of the four scientists merely being decontaminated enough to reach Level 5, the deepest circle of the labyrinthine laboratory where research is taking place. Some may feel it makes the film drag, but it lends itself to the anxious, cold, sterile tension that builds and builds throughout the movie. As is always the case with an epidemic, we know that time is of the essence. Andromeda could wipe out all life on Earth by the time the researchers discover their answers.
The rest of The Andromeda Strain‘s is a clinical medi-drama, with the four doctors racing against the clock to discover the alien organism’s secrets. It’s entirely authentic, plausible, and rooted in real, contemporary science, which Michael Crichton is well-known for. Crichton convinced generations that bringing dinosaurs back to life via cloning was not only plausible but likely with Jurassic Park. He makes an alien outbreak seem every bit as possible, much to our dismay.
The secret to Andromeda may lie with the two lone survivors of Piedmont, Nevada – an aging alcoholic and a baby that never stops crying.
The Andromeda Strain‘s medical and scientific breakthroughs are invigorating, coming at a breakneck speed as the scientists first isolate Andromeda and then discover what separates it from life on Earth. You’ll be fascinated when they discover it’s a crystalline form rather than being based on RNA/DNA like terrestrial life. You’ll thrill in triumph when they discover that Alkali levels seems to have something to do with Andromeda’s survival.
The Andromeda Strain is both futuristic and retro due to its age, which contributes a lot to its charm. Upon its release in 1971, Roger Ebert praised its realistic set design to the logical continuation of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. “2001 put all that behind, and made it necessary for science-fiction movies (ambitious ones, at least) to create a plausible environment. “The Andromeda Strain” does that absolutely brilliantly. The human characters almost seem an embarrassment to the Wildfire Project, a hermetically sealed laboratory on five levels below ground.”
The Andromeda Strain‘s production, likewise, was likely cutting-edge for its time and yet, in retrospect, seems appealingly ’70s. Split screen shots are used extensively throughout the film to convey Crichton’s dense wall of scientific information. It gives a bit of a funky edge to an otherwise entirely austere film, contributing a lot to its watchability and charm. It also adds some much-appreciated warmth to a movie that’s about as cozy as a sterilized scalpel.
Much of that cold, clinical, sterility comes from the sound design, both the early electronic score from Gil Melle and the seemingly incessant, anonymous announcements and alarms, intoning bureaucratic surrealism that only a Ph.D. could understand.
If you’ve ever spent any time in an ’80s laser tag maze or sci-fi haunted house, these arcane intonations will thrill you while simultaneously chilling you to yr marrow.
The Andromeda Strain is, ultimately, about the Human element during times of crisis. Like when the aging alcoholic chastises Dr. Hall for not feeding the crying baby. Or the tension of trying to get the President to order a nuclear strike which could ultimately save all life on Earth.
This should go without saying for all the movies and media we’ll be discussing this week, but approach The Andromeda Strain with caution. If yr already feeling anxious or worried about what this current viral epidemic is going to do to the world, you’d be advised to stay well, well away from The Andromeda Strain. Likewise, same goes for animal lovers, as there a few very upsetting scenes featuring animal testing.
And yet, during times of crisis, art offers us a window and a mirror to view the world we’re living in. Horror, in particular, lets us peer into our collective anxieties, fears, hopes, and dreads. Science fiction illuminates our imagination, a gigantic “What if?” as entire genre.
Like i used to say about my old radio show Morningstar: The Light In The Darkness, “We’re looking for the light in the darkness, going where Angels fear to tread.” It’s important to not shut down and turn a blind eye during these troubling times. So, over here at Forestpunk, we’re leaning into the atrocity and seeing what can be learned from all of it.
Watch The Andromeda Strain from Vudu!
Looking for more viral entertainment during yr quarantine? It’s Plague Week here on Forestpunk! We’ll be bringing your virulent movies, music, books, and comics all week long! So stay tuned and check back often! And, of course, follow @for3stpunk on Twitter and Instagram for more aesthetics to entertain, distract, inspire, and inform during this outbreak.