Long before contemporary virus-on-the-loose movies like Outbreak (1995) and Contagion (2011), writer Michael Crichton explored the terror of a potentially unstoppable disease with his novel The Andromeda Strain, which provided the basis for this intense, Oscar-winning movie. Built around the idea of an alien virus accidentally brought to earth by a returning space probe that crash lands in a tiny Southwestern town, Crichton’s tale spends very little time depicting the effects of the virus on the outside world. Instead, the bulk of his story takes place inside Wildfire, a massive underground complex designed for responding to potential biological-warfare threats.
Drawing on his background as a medical doctor, Crichton painstakingly described the procedures that might be followed in such a facility, so the faithful screen adaptation sometimes feels like a training film as it depicts things like disinfection baths, live testing on lab animals, and specimen analysis. In fact, the challenges of adhering to scientific method inform the film’s character conflicts—the mastermind behind Wildfire, bacteria specialist Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill), repeatedly criticizes his people for succumbing to emotionalism.
This cold-blooded approach irks Stone’s subordinates, including compassionate medical doctor Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson), avuncular pathologist Dr. Charles Dutton (David Wayne), short-tempered microbiologist Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid), and kindhearted nurse Karen Anson (Paula Kelly). Brought together reluctantly, these characters must overcome interpersonal disharmony as they unravel mysteries with apocalyptic implications. Director Robert Wise, whose previous contribution to the sci-fi genre was the chilling classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), emulates the clinical subject matter by utilizing a restrained style: Most scenes are detailed and lengthy, revealing miniscule details about procedure and technology.
Combined with the film’s spectacular production design—think smooth chrome surfaces hiding ornate infrastructure—Wise’s storytelling simulates the dehumanizing atmosphere surrounding the characters. (Composer Gil Melle’s freaky electronic music, comprising all sorts of mechanized beeps and screeches, adds to the tension.) The movie occasionally cuts outside Wildfire to depict the activities of military men like hard-driving Major Mancheck (Ramon Bieri), but the real drama stems from watching the scientists expand their knowledge of the alien killer in their midst. Some might find the picture’s approach tame (the movie’s rated “G,” after all), and none of the actors does anything remarkable. But for a 130-minute epic about a villain the size of a grain of sand, The Andromeda Strain is memorably smart and suspenseful.
The Andromeda Strain: GROOVY