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The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971)

Starring: Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson, Kate Reid, Paula Kelly, George Mitchell

Written By: Nelson Gidding, Michael Crichton (novel) Directed By: Robert Wise

The Short Version

If you think science fiction should actually be about science, The Andromeda Strain is a movie for you.

Assuming, of course, that you’re very patient; this flick is slow.

That said, out of all of the “nasty virus must be contained” movies out there, this one is the best.

And no, despite the ridiculous title card at the start, this is not a true story.

The Andromeda Strain is very well done, but even its champions would probably be happier with the book.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

FAT FREE CREAM CHEESE.

After the flavor has been removed, it’s then generally sold in containers that look like culture dishes.  When served, it tends to put an emphasis on the things it’s covering up.


Pairs Well With...

KAHLUA & COFFEE.

You may need the coffee to stay awake; might as well make it interesting!

“This communication is being monitored.  The connection has been broken for reasons of national security.  You will be briefed at the appropriate time.  Thank you for your cooperation, Mrs. Stone.”


Within the bubble of a brief cinematic moment initiated by Mr. Kubrick and Mr. Clarke, a group of mainstream science fiction films came along that tried to focus on the “science” part of the term more heavily than they did on the “fiction” part.  One of these movies was The Andromeda Strain.

The results are… something.

What that “something” happens to be is a very close adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel; not totally faithful, but close enough even with a gender bender.  However, just because “The Andromeda Strain” is rightly acclaimed as one of Crichton’s best novels, that does not in turn automatically mean that a reasonably faithful adaptation will make as enjoyable of a movie, no matter how well made it may be.  After all, film is a different medium that plays to different senses and perceptions, and though The Andromeda Strain is indeed a well made – I’ll even say first class for its day – movie, it just doesn’t play as well as the book.  Even if you like this movie – which I do, intellectually – you’ll probably enjoy the book more.

Why?  Because the same story that makes for an engaging read that begs to be digested in a single sitting makes for a damn slow movie that even the intellectually inclined will be hard pressed not to yawn at, and which in the era of home video can be likened to a staring contest that the audience is destined to lose by crying “uncle” and getting up without pressing the “pause” button.  (Odds are you won’t miss anything while you’re up grabbing some caffeine or a snack, anyway.)

Our story begins with an unfortunate fad of the 1970s in the form of a title card that suggests that what follows is a true story based on documents soon to be declassified.  Just to get this part out of the way: the title card is bogus.  This is not a true story.  Moving on, then…

We soon learn that the US government sent a satellite called “Scoop” into outer space some time ago to collect some samples; the movie isn’t quite clear about where from.  (By the way, the term “Lunar Receiving Lab” does not necessarily imply the moon, any more than the “Jet Propulsion Laboratory” is limited to jets.)  We catch up with the satellite just a few days after it crashes back to Earth in the vicinity of a sleepy little town in New Mexico called Piedmont (Population: 68).  The military types assigned to collect it are horrified to discover that everyone in the town is dead, and that they appear to have died instantly and simultaneously.  These collectors can’t say more, though, because while their minders back on base listen in, they suddenly up and die, too.

Gosh, could the satellite have brought back something… dangerous, perhaps?  Like, say, some kind of lethal pathogen?  The guys back at the base sure think so, and so they immediately call upon a specially selected group of scientists to go in next and bring the satellite back to the ultra-secure “Wildfire” facility, where it can be examined under completely sterile – and completely contained – conditions, and where if things go really bad, they can always solve the problem with a nuclear warhead.

Now that they’ve mentioned it, would anyone care to lay odds that a nuclear countdown doesn’t start?  Anyone?  Yeah, thought so…

As noted, The Andromeda Strain is, by most critical standards, a very good movie.  It’s well adapted, the acting’s decent, the production design is excellent given the period, and the direction is utterly meticulous.  Alas, that very meticulousness is often what betrays the film and reveals it as being a better book.

“The Andromeda Strain” as a novel throws so much technical information at the reader that the techno babble essentially becomes a substitute for action in a trick that only the printed page can pull off with any real grace and consistency.  As a film, The Andromeda Strain copies that spirit of clinical technicality… and off the printed page, it plays like a lecture.  Even if you love educational documentaries, the fact is that the presentation style of The Andromeda Strain is monotonous at best.  Does it play off as accurate to the matter at hand?  Sure, but… damn.  (Alas, no one thought to include an engaging fellow like Carl Sagan as part of the team to liven up the science.)  And when the monotony of the scientific process is broken by a character expressing him or herself on a more human level, it is more often than not simply a means of reminding the audience that most of these characters are assholes that most other people wouldn’t want to hang out with socially.

Also, slow as The Andromeda Strain may be (it takes over an hour for our team of experts to even reach the point of analyzing the satellite in their superlab), the motion picture medium still processes differently and more immediately than the words of a novel do.  This makes it harder for members of the audience to forget when one slips little hints their way.  For example, what does it mean when you throw in that idiotic title card up front or some insert moments that are very clearly recollections of testimony that takes place after the events unfolding on the screen?  Well, not to spoil the ending or anything, but I think it provides a strong hint as to whether the Nasty Bug O’ Instant Death To Everyone actually gets released out into the general population, don’t you?  I’m also getting a strong vibe about whether or not the nuke goes off, for some reason.  And because the medium is so geared toward magnifying such devices to begin with, and because the direction is so precise that these things stick out even more, this needless window dressing does a massive number on the suspense factor; a factor which, frankly, a film this slow would be much better off bolstering as an antidote to its pacing.  The careful direction also makes it that much more obvious when a plot device is thrown in to keep what action there is from getting too far ahead of itself, thwarting the very clinical analysis that the movie is building itself around.  It’s a no-win situation, really: on the one hand, Robert Wise is absolutely the perfect man to tell this story on screen, but on the other, he’s so good at his job that he ends up sabotaging that very same story.

And yet, compared to the “gotta stop the pandemic before it starts” films that would follow – I’m looking at you, OutbreakThe Andromeda Strain still comes out miles ahead.  The same clinical approach that threatens to bore even interested audiences here also keeps the smarm and the melodrama away, and frankly, I think that a look at the broader catalog of this genre shows that for these flicks, the melodrama is far worse to deal with.  Yes, an iron butt and a caffeine IV are all but required to sit through The Andromeda Strain, but if you can look past the few seconds of needless suspense-killing inserts and the abrasive personalities of the characters, it is an intellectually engaging film.  The premise is intriguing, and the twists of the story as puzzled out by the scientists are far more interesting and satisfying than “if we don’t find that monkey, the pretty lady will die!”  So yes, I do like The Andromeda Strain.

However, as noted, I think it makes a far better book, and whatever satisfying notes there are to the film, I can’t picture myself intentionally watching it again without being somehow coerced into doing so.

Bottom line, just buy Michael Crichton’s novel instead and read that.  You’ll find that “Andromeda Strain” to be a much more rewarding experience.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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