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The Andromeda Strain •••1/2

The Andromeda Strain

The Andromeda Strain

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, given the COVID-19 pandemic, how about reviewing movies about similar horrific outbreaks?

Sure Scott. I’ll take my Corona-virus with a slice of Lyme disease. Let’s start the series with The Andromeda Strain.

Let’s begin with that classic 1971 movie, The Andromeda Strain. Greg, I hate to say it, but The Andromeda Strain has not aged well. The overall story idea is a good one, involving a space germ that attacks the blood of its victims and requires a heroic scientific effort to eradicate. The movie also features some impressive special effects, at least by 1971 standards. I can see how audiences 50 years ago would be dazzled by innovative sci-fi technology that far exceeded anything seen on the original Star Trek series which aired just two years prior to Andromeda Strain.

But my goodness. We can’t ignore the reality that the acting in Andromeda Strain is nothing short of atrocious. The characters are wooden caricatures who respond with odd, immature outbursts to the crisis, and to each other. I found myself laughing at scenes that were unintentionally funny. This movie may have been ahead of its time with regard to split-screen filmmaking and techno-gadgetry, but it was behind its time in the area of pacing (way too slow) and casting (way too amateurish).

Making matters worse was having to endure long-winded shots of Wildfire, the elaborate subterranean science station boasting state-of-the-art gadgets and laser beams. Director Robert Wise was clearly in love with every frame of footage showing every tedious millimeter of Wildfire. There are so many dull and unnecessary scenes in this movie that I literally played solitaire on my smartphone during most of its two-hour plus running time.

The science heroes here are certainly capable and worthy heroes, but they left me yawning or giggling at their silliness and unprofessionalism. So I’m afraid that the best I can do is award only 2 Reels out of 5 to The Andromeda Strain. I’ll bump up my heroes rating to 3 out of 5 because the scientist heroes do go on the mythic hero’s quest and save the world in impressive fashion. Plus the film is ahead of its time in featuring a woman scientist hero — although it is unfortunate that they gave her a disability that almost kills everyone.

Reels: Heroes: 

Wow. That’s a harsh review for such a great movie, Scott. Perhaps I watch this film with the wonder of an eight-year-old boy. This was the first full length science fiction movie I ever watched. Its depiction of scientists, with all their failings, created true hero-icons in my mind that have endured for a lifetime. So, nothing personal, but we’re far apart on this one.

First of all, I’ll give you credit where it is due. Robert Wise was also the director of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). If you’ll recall, virtually everyone has complained about Wise’s choice to film the new Enterprise from every angle with very tedious scenes. (I have actually published my own edit of ST:TMP – down to 70 minutes). He probably primed that “skill” on The Andromeda Strain. His shots of the “Wildfire” complex are long and ponderous. But the concepts involved in “cleaning the human body – one of the dirtiest things on Earth,” required the showing of the stages. Admittedly, he could have been more economical.

However, I will argue vehemently for the high quality of the acting in this movie. Rarely have we seen such an excellent ensemble cast. Let’s start with the very best:

  • Arthur Hill as Dr. Jeremy Stone. He’s a classic administrative scientist: very at home with theory, writing papers, running meetings, giving presentations and teaching classes. You know the type (possibly intimately?). I totally believed his character.
  • Kate Reid was an inspired choice as Dr. Ruth Leavitt. This character was written in Michael Crichton’s book as a man. When screenwriter Nelson Gidding suggested the change to Wise, he balked and asked the opinion of a number of scientists, who were unanimously enthusiastic about the idea. (Wikipedia). Reid is known as one of the finest actors to come out of Canada. Her portrayal of the acerbic, highly opinionated woman scientist is a cinema first. Also, to present a person with epilepsy as a successful, passionate, and not-at-all weak woman may have single-handedly advanced the cause of epileptics the world over.
  • David Wayne went on to be Ellery Queen’s father in the same-named TV show. He reminded me of Burgess Merideth in many ways. His portrayal of Dr. Charles Dutton as the elder / mentor scientist was just spot on. Especially the scene where Dutton contracts Andromeda and is scared witless for his life.
  • James Olson as the young, dashing, unattached Dr. Mark Hall was – well he was fine.

You also call out the special effects. These were created by Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek). He created Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) without computers. Looking at these displays today you may find them cheesy. But remember, the home computer was easily a decade away and Star Wars with its revolutionary use of computers was six or seven years away. Trumbull by all estimates was one of the most innovative special effects masters – ever.

When you look at the set for The Andromeda Strain it’s hard to remember that this was at a time before the clean rooms (used in ICUs) we know today – but Trumbull created them for Andromeda. The Wildfire facility with its smooth white walls (and yellow, red, orange on other layers) took a dozen coats of paint. Wise was said to walk through the set and say “Ok. looks good. One more coat,” – several times – driving cast and crew mad. Wise’s use of split screen may look dated now, but it was revolutionary in 1971. Sadly, it was so effective that it has become a hackneyed trope.

But let’s get back to the pandemic theme for this month’s reviews. Andromeda’s depiction of the spread of a viral organism was so realistic that viewers today ask if Andromeda actually happened. A 2003 publication by the Infectious Diseases Society of America noted that The Andromeda Strain is the “most significant, scientifically accurate, and prototypic of all films of this [killer virus] genre … it accurately details the appearance of a deadly agent, its impact, and the efforts at containing it, and, finally, the work-up on its identification and clarification on why certain persons are immune to it.” (Wikipedia)

And when you compare it to the current COVID-19 pandemic, we see frightening parallels:

  • A President who delays responding to the advice of his scientific advisors
  • A scientific advisor who is saddled with the responsibility of explaining highly technical concepts to politicians and other lay people
  • A political advisor who is far more concerned with the image of the President than the effect the virus will have on the planet
  • And, equally important, our hero-scientists who at first advise one course of remedy only to realize it’s a bad course and must backtrack to set the correct course.

In the case of our hero-scientists, we see a common theme in Michael Crichton’s work – that of team problem solving. This is no harmonious group of chums. Each of the scientists contributes grudgingly. They argue incessantly, especially after they become fatigued. And they make mistakes. They are, more than the average movie/TV scientist – incredibly human. And yet they pull together to discover a solution that saves the world – with 10 seconds to spare.

As I said at the top of this review – I may be looking at The Andromeda Strain through the haze of an eight-year-old’s introduction to fine science fiction. For me it still stands up as one of the best films in the genre. For all of its quality, craftsmanship, earnest performances, and prophetic vision, I award it 5 Reels out of 5.

There are few films that portray the ensemble team (as we discuss in our book Reel Heroes and Villains) like The Andromeda Strain. (However, when you do the research, you’ll find the vast majority of “team problem solving” movies trace back to Michael Crichton). I’ve long looked to this film as portraying the importance of diverse personalities in the team dynamic. I give the team of Stone, Leavitt, Dutton, and Hall 5 out of 5 Heroes.

Reels:    Heroes: 

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