THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN

(1971)
With Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olsen, Kate Reid, Paula Kelly, George Mitchell
Directed by Robert Wise
Reviewed by JB

Take the A Strain     When I was a kid, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN was a gripping, edge of your seat thriller. These days, it's not quite as exciting as I remembered it, but it remains a prime example of intelligent 1970s science fiction.  Directed by Robert Wise, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, based solidly on author Michael Crichton's best-selling thriller, is one of the few sci-fi films of any era that feels like the events described could happen tomorrow, today or even five minutes from now.  A satellite crashes in the small town of Piedmont, somehow killing everybody in town except an old man and a baby.  Why did they survive?  What killed everybody else?   Can it be stopped?  

     Rather than use big name stars like Charlton Heston and Raquel Welch, director Wise wisely (sorry) opted to cast four character actors as the science team in charge of answering the above questions.  All four add to the docu-drama feel of the film, with David Wayne and Kate Reid giving the most memorable performances.  Compare the plain, stocky Reid's performance here to the beauteous Welch's in FANTASTIC VOYAGE and it is no contest - Reid blows Welch out of the water.  (She was equally good as Linda Loman, Willy's wife, in the Dustin Hoffman TV version of Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN in 1985).  The four scientists are transported, along with the two survivors and the contaminated satellite itself, to a secret five-story tall underground laboratory in Nevada.  There, they attempt to answer all the questions and keep the weird space virus, dubbed "Andromeda", from spreading.

     What is immediately striking about THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN today is its intelligence. Like most Wise films I have seen, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN does not pretend to be anything than what it is - a well-made, thoughtful movie created for an audience that appreciated such films (remember those days?).  While there are some topical references tossed out and political points made, they are done in a natural way rather than in the heavy-handed style of many of today's films.  The special effects and dialogue may not be overly impressive by modern standards but they are convincing, and they are in support of the story rather than the other way around. There is not a single effect in the film that calls undue attention to itself, nor a single line in the film that could be classified as a catchphrase. (Nobody yells "We've got to get this m------ f---ing virus off this m------ f---ing planet!").  There is perhaps too much time devoted to tedious scientific matters such as how the team is decontaminated before starting their mission or now dated exposition of how the "modern" computers work (Ooh --- touch screens!), but this also works to make the film feel more realistic.  After all, science is often drudgery until a big breakthrough occurs, and it also can be brought to its knees by such simple things as an unnoticed sliver of paper wedged in the bell of a printer.

     Admittedly, because of the devotion to realism, and the difference in how thrillers were made forty years ago, as well as the difference in the sophistication levels of movie-going audiences between then and today (take that anyway you wish), THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN can be seen as dull and plodding at times.  But it features at least two excellent sequences that will be recalled by nearly everybody who has ever seen the film once.  The first is the visit to Piedmont where the scientists played by Arthur Hiller and James Olsen discover nearly the entire population of the town "cut down in mid stride".   Eerie, disturbing shots of a man sitting in a barber chair, a baby on the floor with his doll, and a man and woman who somehow had the time to commit suicide before being overtaken by the mysterious disease were etched into my mind years ago, along with many other images from this sequence.  The second great scene is the finale, in which James Olsen must climb through the booby-trapped central core of the underground lab to turn off the nuclear self-destruct safeguard that has been activated.  Can anyone ever forget that friendly female voice that keeps track of the time left?: "There are now two minutes to self-destruct", "There are now one minute and forty-five seconds to self-destruct", "There are now....".

    You half expect her to add "Have a nice day!".  4 - JB

Science Fiction     The Secret Vortex

REMAKES

The Andromeda Strain (TV - 2008?)


DIE, DIE, MY MONKEY!

One particularly disturbing scene features a rhesus monkey being "exposed" to the film's titular space virus.  Even all these years later, I find it hard to watch the poor little guy convulsing, shaking and falling over in his cage. According to Robert Wise in the documentary included on the DVD, no monkey was actually killed in making the film, and the monkey-death effect was done by nearly killing it with carbon monoxide and reviving it with pure oxygen moments later.  Look closely and you can see the shadow of somebody heading toward the monkey cage just as the shot is about to cut off, presumably to revive it.  Members of the ASPCA were on the set and allowed such things to happen - I can't imagine any animal-friendly organization putting up with anything similar these days.

And I cannot vouch for the same treatment of white mice in the film.


I SEE DEAD PEOPLE

The dead townspeople were not played by actors but by extras.  If you look closely enough, you may see one or two of them move involuntarily, but in general they are extremely good at playing not just dead but eerily dead. In a way, it is their collective performance as a town full of dead people that make the rest of the film so thoroughly convincing.