Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Andromeda Strain (1971)


          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

2 comments:

Raider Duck said...

Good movie, but I've always had two big problems with it (SPOILER WARNING):

1) The characters make a big deal out of discovering Dr. Leavitt's epilepsy and saying it's no big deal and how dare anyone think her less qualified because it. But later in the movie, she has a brief seizure that causes her to miss a crucial piece of information. So maybe her medical condition WAS a problem after all?

2) You build a biological weapons facility that's set to blow up in event of contamination unless a key is inserted into a special console. You then leave these consoles unfinished and build the rest of the station. Shouldn't those consoles (which are there to prevent the incineration of the facility and deaths of everyone in it) be the FIRST things you bring online???

William Blake Hall said...

I happen to love this movie (hey, someone named Hall saves the world -- not even The Day After Tomorrow really manages that), so I will at long last try to take on these objections. They are thoughtful and worthy, but I'm not so sure they're quite so absolute.

1. Leavitt's epilepsy only became an issue due to dopey and insensitive design. While it is to some degree understandable, was it absolutely necessary to have that reading flash red? Left entirely to herself, Leavitt was perfectly capable of seeing "Huh -- no growth!" But no, they had to insist on a flashing red readout. That was design's fault, not hers.

2. In fact, that's the underlying lesson of Strain, the idea that systems, however sophisticated, can still mess up in the dumbest ways. This extends from the scroll of the communique curling back up in such a way as to keep the bell from ringing, to the whole back-forth-back-forth as to whether or not setting off the device is a good or bad idea. The consoles being incomplete unfortunately makes realistic sense when you consider that this is a government project, agreed to very begrudgingly in the first place, and some engineer may have poorly predicted that the option to cancel detonation would be so obvious that surely a scientist would be standing ready with his key in mere seconds. Clearly no one expected anyone to have to climb up floor after floor of the core area while being made severely woozy from laser fire.

Wildfire in practice was a battlefield between Murphy's law and design expectations. This happens everywhere. You would think that British Petroleum would make sure to avert a giant Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and you would be wrong. Before that, what Osama bin Laden probably imagined as mere gouges in the twin towers turned out to be their spectacular obliteration. Strain was Crichton's greatest novel on this theme. By the time he did Jurassic Park, he was getting sloppy.