Horrorible Review: “The Andromeda Strain”

Enjoy this Monday with Mildred!

The Andromeda Strain movie poster

The Andromeda Strain

The filmmakers did NOT kill the monkey, so you can relax.

I’ve loved movies for a very, very long time thanks to my dad, who shared my love of the bad, the cheesy, and the ridiculous. The Andromeda Strain is none of those things, but we thought it was when we turned the rabbit ears in the direction of that night’s film (yes, people, you couldn’t see movies every day on tv, and when you could there was only one movie, and only one time). Neither of us knew that the schlocky sci fi we expected would have us speechless in paranoid fear before very long.

The creepy began with an opening statement about the events being real and thanking the responsible government agency (fake) for their cooperation (the book even has fake bibliographic citations). It got worse a few minutes later when we learned it’s a space bug that kills the town of Piedmont, New Mexico, which looks as arid as the surface of the Moon and which the government intends to sterilize with a nuclear bomb. After an examination of the town the action moves to a super-secret underground bio-research facility code named Wildfire (set in the middle of the nuclear testing area, now more popularly known at Area 51 – which you won’t find on Google Map).

The Andromeda Strain appeared in the middle of the Cold War, which was the (mostly) non-shooting fallout of two surviving giants of World War II. Forty million people had died not thirty years before, leaving no one on the planet unaffected, and the covert and potentially world killing activities of the U.S. and the Soviets had a lot of people on edge. Fear of a nuclear holocaust was a real and constant tension, not helped by a growing public knowledge of just how sneaky governments – even ours – could be. It was the dawn of the Tinfoil Hat Age. At the same time, the Space Race that was also a part of the Cold War was testing people’s fear of the unknown, including worry about what the astronauts might inadvertently bring back to Earth. Science, as always, was looked on suspiciously by most folks and during this time enormous steps forward were convincing not a few people that the “eggheads” were going to kill us all. It was a scary place in a lot of American heads back then.

The novel by Michael Crichton, a master of blending popular fears of science and government secrecy into potent anxiety soups, was blended by director Robert Wise into something even scarier, beginning with the beautiful opening score. Title cards letting the viewer know this all Really Happened (it didn’t) (I think) followed by the opening credits are scored with an electronically mixed source music with elements of futuristic scientific sounds like dot matrix printers and heartbeat monitors. The musically rendered science builds in frenzy and complexity and then stops at the beginning of the film. I don’t know if the director simply wanted to use the Wildfire facility sounds as a musical leitmotif, or he really meant to put his Cold War era audience further on edge with unusual, “highly technical” sounds. It works, either way. After the credits the film relies almost completely on ambient sound, and inside Wildfire the constant, nearly subsonic hum of the facility.

Throughout the film Wise used unusual camera angles and super close shots to make everything feel a little “off” and accentuate how important the scientists’ frenzied research is to humankind’s survival. Racy (for early 70s) shots of a man’s naked butt and a woman’s chest with no tricks to hide the nudity heightens the documentary feel with their matter-of-factness. The director also doesn’t shy away from the painful to watch, like opening a man’s veins in close-up and lethal animal testing in the lab.

One of the scientists from the book was changed to an older woman, supposedly in a bid to add “tough minded maternalism” to the story. She’s a lot earthier than that, and has all of the funny lines. While watching it for this review I was struck with how much she reminds me of a doctor/research scientist I got to know while in college. Her lab assistant is a young Asian American woman, the Wildfire nurse is an African American woman, and the baby is Hispanic. Though The Andromeda Strain is one of the more diverse movies of the era you’ll still find annoying misogyny, like the “Odd Man” hypothesis that bugged me when I was fourteen and bugs me now. Only a man can make the right decision in a world-killing event?

Cricton’s fiction was prescient enough to still be viable a half century later in this “how done-it” rather than “who done-it”. This is the first time we saw a hazmat suit on the screen, an electronic palm scanner, and gui computer systems that projected technical images in 3-D (hand drawn – computers didn’t do that yet – of a rather Umbrella Corp-looking Wildfire). Waldos weren’t new at the time, but not at this magnitude of precision. Using cutting edge science to tell a science fiction story, showing how much can be done with intellectual hard work and using your tools to their greatest capacity made it much easier to suspend disbelief.

Crichton’s juicy blend of political paranoia and reliance on people’s ignorance of science means the story can be constantly updated, which it was in a 2008 miniseries. The first thing you’ll notice is a standard musical score, pretty actors not as believable as scientists, and “Ooooh! Shiny!” scientific braggadocio instead of serious speculation.  The filmmakers, not content with “merely” ending the world with a space bug, add drama with one of those pesky, snoopy journalists making things even hotter. In an indictment of our declining education system they get the science wrong more often fifty years later.

Elements of the first movie are used but it often felt more like lazy storytelling, like the doctor explaining – as he did in the original film – that the people didn’t die of a heart attack because they look peaceful, obviously without pain. Moments later, flashbacks show them screaming in pain as they go down. Uh…duh? Read your own screenplay, dude!

The remake isn’t a bad movie, but they were going for the clever rather than the truly smart and added layer after layer of More! Drama! to up the ante, which ultimately made it a weaker film.  The original version of The Andromeda Strain is a rare bit of fiction that is truly timeless, beginning with a smart and effective novel beautifully adapted for the screen with story is so well drawn you could adapt and update it every thirty years for a long, long time.  I highly recommend that you watch the original film, and read the book either before or after. The later mini-series isn’t horrible, but it’s tough to follow a classic.


The Andromeda Strain Official Trailer #1 – David Wayne Movie (1971) HD

CFR: In Addition: I am really glad Mildred said they didn’t kill the monkey because I watched this movie again over the weekend and was very angry about the poor monkey! I’m still upset because I hope they didn’t hurt it. I’ll have to check.

Yes this movie is a cut above other SF movies, but eh. I remember watching this in high school biology and not being that impressed. There is often a lot of shouting and moralizing and yes I know Vietnam era film making and I’m glad it had an anti-war sentiment but, well it was the film making style of the times. I didn’t really blend with it then and I don’t now. Just me.

However the BEST PART OF THIS MOVIE and that part which made the movie for me was Kate Reid as Dr. Ruth Leavitt. Holy Toledo Blades how did this incredible character make it into the film?!?!? I mean WOW! I would be thrilled to see her in a modern movie but to see her back in the 70s – OMG!! Seriously, her biting wit and commentary is great! And she isn’t there for show she is there to work! I also really liked Paula Kelly as Karen Anson cause cool nurse!! And she is black and that made it sweeter. So YAY! I salute this film for being way ahead of it’s time.

AND more positives – I loved how they showed the science. So coo!!!!! I was impressed with that too.

Yeah, I liked the movie. It didn’t scare me but I sure did like it.

Thanks for inspiring me to watch it again Mildred and Tammy!! (You can see Tammy’s review here.)

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