The Andromeda Strain (1971)

Sometimes I like to fight the urge to throw endless sleaze, carnality and grue into the pages of Girls, Guns and Ghouls and place a nice little thought-provoking science fiction film gently into these pages. Just to provide us all with a change of pace! Robert Wise's adaptation of Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain fits the bill just perfectly. Wise covered a lot of genres in his career, with The Day the Earth Stood Still probably still the most notable entry for sci-fi fans. From the opening credits, Andromeda is a wonderfully stylish film, full of intriguing details and probably the most subtle invading monster from outer space ever.

In a New Mexico desert town called Piedmont, the whole populace has dropped dead overnight, right after a U.S. space satellite has crashed into their midst. Investigating scientists are airlifted in by chopper and gas the place, knowing some kind of devastating viral outbreak has already claimed some of their number a few hours earlier. Seeing that the buzzards that tore at the townsfolk's dead flesh didn't draw any blood, the scientists know they're in for a bizarre ride when all the victims can bleed is dried-out coagulated red particles. Strangely, the dead town has two survivors - a baby and a drunk old man who tried to attack one of the astro-suited investigators. The two survivors are flown away, along with the offending piece of satellite and the two men call a "Wildfire Alert".

A little later we find out just what that means. Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hall) is contacted by the air force and briefed about 'Scoop", a project that was meant to bring in organisms from outer space for research. A group of scientists is brought in to assist Stone with his mission of containment - Surgeon Dr Mark Hall (James Olson), Dr Charles Dutton (David Wayne) and the cynical microbiologist Dr Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid). This motley bunch are brought to the underground Wildfire facility to attempt to quell the coming disaster. Wildfire is an amazing place. To descend down into it's ultimate fifth research level where the "virus" is quarantined, the four scientists must go though various baths, lasers and heat treatments to become totally sterile beings. At one point they don metallic helmets (as pictured above) and have the outer layers of their epidermis burnt off, leaving a white powdery substance.

The desperate research begins. The young and single Mark Hall is given the key to stop the atomic bomb that will blow up the complex, if the computer system that runs the place senses a containment breach. Rhesus monkeys and rats are exposed to the virus and die in fairly disturbing scenes. I have read since that the animals were gassed with carbon monoxide and passed out, to be later revived. The two survivors continue to do just that, survive, providing a puzzle to all. In the meantime, Stone had ordered the bomb to be dropped on Piedmont, but a bumbling official did not pass on the message. As the study continues, and exhaustion begins to take it's toll on our protagonists, they make some startling discoveries. First, the virus can only survive in human blood, and wreak it's havoc, under very strict conditions. Too much acidity or alkaline and it dies. The old man made his blood acid by booze, the baby alkaline by hyperventilatng though crying.

Secondly, Dutton and Levitt, to their horror, realise the maps on display that illustrate the possible spread of the virus are biological warfare maps. Wildfire was set up to research the potential lethality of any viruses reeled in by the 'Scoop' satellite - not just to contain or prevent.

Thirdly, the alien virus is crystalline in structure and reproduces on its own. All it needs is energy, such as an atomic bomb, to reproduce itself in a firestorm of veracity. And Stone had just succeeded in finally getting the President to drop the A-bomb on Piedmont ... there is also a hidden quality that the newly named Andromeda Strain has, it's incredible appetite for rubber, as it begins to eat it's way though the Wildfire complex's seals. The race is on to halt the bomb on Piedmont, and save one of their number, Dr. Dutton, from a virus leak during one of their autopsies. They have him heavy-breathing like the baby and surviving, but then the alarm goes off - Wildfire will now self-destruct in precisely four and half minutes. Only one man, Mark Hall can stop it, and the ultimate destruction of all life on the planet if their discovery and research is lost.

This truly is a science-fiction film like few others. First off, the characters are all played by relative unknowns - character actors at that, and they're all older. They're all tired, jaded and fed-up. The main female character, Ruth Levitt, as played by Kate Reid, has short-cropped hair, is middle-aged and overweight with glasses and epilepsy! Not a tight sweaty tank-top in sight. The only real concession to action takes place in the last twenty or so minutes, with the more typical blonde-hero-type, Hall, as played by James Olsen, getting lasered through the cheek as he tries to stop the complex from blowing up. Most of the film is the research and study of the bug - endless scenes of animals being tested, the capsule under the microscope, the virus itself, gradually revealing its sinister mysteries. It's like we're researching the virus with our harried scientist friends. The film's punctuated by various dates and times, making it almost documentary-style. Richard H. Kline's cinematography is superb wide-screen on most ocassions, making great use of whatever location, be it desert or the confines of the Wildfire Centre. Indispersed are small-framed shots within a black frame, breaking up the image into fragments. The music by Gil Melle is very distinctively electronic, especially those sublime opening credits.

A film of subtlety, folks, but an effective - and quite gripping - entertainment all the same. If you enjoy your seventies cinema and like intelligent science-fiction, I can only recommend The Andromeda Strain. You can only imagine what mainstream Hollywood would do with the story these days.

© Boris "Brains" Lugosi, 2006.

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Review written: 05/15/2006 22:10:09