“That’s what we’ll find out now… the mechanism of death.”
Riding the new wave of intelligent and speculative science fiction films initiated by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Andromeda Strain takes one of the tiredest of sci-fi tropes, the alien invasion, and reinvigorates it. Instead of giant bug-eyed monsters from space attacking the Earth it’s the turn of microscopic organisms and the resulting film is a masterclass of mounting tension and suspense.
The film begins with two US army soldiers observing the small town of Piedmont, New Mexico. They have been sent to reclaim a crashed satellite but when they enter the town they barely have time to register that all the townsfolk are dead before they too succumb to an unknown agent. It quickly becomes evident that the satellite has brought back an alien germ from space that is deadly to life on Earth, causing blood to instantly clot and turn to dust. The town is quickly quarantined as four scientists working in an secret underground government facility race against time to discover the link between the only two survivors – an old man and a baby – and develop a cure.
Directed by Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Run Silent Run Deep), shooting from a script by Nelson Gidding (The Haunting, The Hindenburg) and adapted from the novel by Michael Crichton (Westworld, Jurassic Park), the film more than lives up to its impressive parentage. Wise does a great job cranking up the tension, hardly surprising from the director of that tour de force of psychological suspense, The Haunting. For example, when the two doomed soldiers enter the town, we don’t see what happens to them instead we hear them as their comments are transmitted back to their base via radio. Their exclamations of fear, followed by their screams of pain, are made all the more chilling when they are reflected in the horrified reactions of their fellow soldiers monitoring the transmission. And Wise does all he can to keep the audience off-balance – dioptre lenses (which allow items in the foreground and background to stay in focus simultaneously) are widely used to great effect while Gil Melle’s tonal soundtrack reinforces the film’s pervading sense of disquiet.
Crichton’s novel delighted in the scientific investigation into the plague and Wise picks up that baton and runs with it. The sterility and coldly-analytical realism of the underground laboratory are depicted in great detail, giving the film a clinical and, at times, documentary feel. This is reinforced by the title cards before the opening credits claiming that the events of the film are true, possibly one of the first times this device was used in a film (I’m struggling to think of an earlier example). That’s not to say the film is slow or boring, far from it. The feeling that a microscopic organism from space can prove equal to the best scientific minds the Earth can offer is chilling and the film’s heavy use of cutting-edge science is given an added sense of realism thanks to the superb visual effects by Douglas Trumbull (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner), all of which were created before the advent of computer graphics.
I remember first seeing The Andromeda Strain in the late Seventies when I was around ten years old, and it scared the hell out of me. One of my favourite scenes is where two of the scientists (Arthur Hill and James Olson) are airlifted into the town: as they stand in airtight suits (reminiscent of those worn by astronauts) waiting for the dust kicked up by the helicopter to settle they are enveloped in an eerie, unnatural quiet. There’s an otherworldly feeling to the scene that clearly indicates that something is very wrong and the message is clear: something alien is present and we are no longer in control. Another great scene is when the two discover that the germ causes blood to dry into sand – this is graphically illustrated by a scalpel slicing through a dead man’s wrist while desiccated blood pores out. And the film’s race-against-the-clock finale is terrific, I still wince every time Olson is hit by one of those lasers.
Upon its release the film garnered two Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Film Editing but sadly it didn’t win in either category. The original book was ‘re-imagined’ (urgh) as a TV movie in 2008 but by all accounts it’s pretty dire. Thankfully the original Andromeda Strain hasn’t lost any of it power over the succeeding 40 years and it still stands as a fine example of Hollywood’s brief flirtation with intelligent science fiction movies. And it’s still damn scary.