Monday, December 16, 2019

Reeling Backward: "The Andromeda Strain" (1971)

"The Andromeda Strain" was a procedural show before they had a name for such a thing.

I'm guessing in 1971 it seemed like a fairly tense, purposeful sci-fi drama at a time when such things were still fairly novel. Science fiction had been generally regarded as the plaything of young people -- at least since the early silent film era of "Metropolis" and the like.

Then after Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" in 1968, audiences were again willing to watch serious stories involving lasers, space aliens and the like. (Along with a few acid-droppers.)

Michael Crichton's novel was a huge hit for the doctor-turned-best-selling-author, launching a long run of film adaptations. The story involves an American satellite that has crash-landed in the desert, killing nearly everyone in the tiny town of Piedmont, Ariz. A crack team of scientists discovers that an alien lifeform fell to Earth with it, threatening all human life on the planet.

In a lot of ways, it's the godfather of the "outbreak" disaster movie subgenre -- "28 Days Later," "Contagion," etc.

"Andromeda" was directed by the great Robert Wise from an adaptation by pet screenwriter Nelson Gidding. Wise began as a film editor in the 1930s and directed films spanning seven decades and virtually every genre.

For a "race against the clock" type of movie, it's a rather listless, obstinately paced one. Popular films just had a generally different pace back then, with long establishing shots, pregnant pauses and an observational camera perspective.

By today's standards it's incredibly slow and mired in minutia. There's a sequence that's about 15 minutes long that just involves the scientists making their way down through five levels of a secret underground station, going through various rounds of decontamination and body scanning.

It's completely dead weight, and a modern editor would lop off the entire thing if they were halfway competent.

"Andromeda" is very much dominated by its special effects to an almost fetishistic degree. It was one of the first films to use computerized visual effects, so an astonishing portion of the 130 minutes of screen time involves staring at screens, or watching characters stare at screens. Douglas Trumbull also did the effects for "2001."

Of course it all looks terribly outdated almost a half-century later, with blocky graphics and green-lettered screen readouts. My issue is not so much with the aesthetics of the effects as how much the movies relies on them to propel the story.

Interestingly, "Andromeda" is not set in the future but the present, with contemporary military hardware, clothing, hardware, etc. It's an idealized portrait of a modernistic present, but the present nonetheless. I would very much place it in the "hard" science fiction category, with its emphasis on technology and harsh realities.

Another notable thing about the film is the cast is so, well, normal-looking. It's pretty much all middle-aged actors very much not in the Harrison Ford/Julia Roberts mold. There are ample bellies, receding hairlines and neck wattle galore.

James Olson plays Mark Hall, the brash young surgeon who provides the youthful energy on the team, and even he was in his 40s when the film came out. Arthur Hill is more or less the central characters as Dr. Jeremy Stone, architect of the Wildfire facility designed to deal with extraterrestrial encounters. David Wayne is Charles Dutton, the elder member of the scientist team.

By far the most interesting character is Dr. Ruth Leavitt, payed by Kate Reid. She's the cantankerous, independent-minded researcher who was more or less forcibly drafted to Wildfire when some soldiers with guns showed up at her laboratory. She's also later revealed to have been hiding an epileptic condition, which ends up endangering the mission.

Leavitt was a male character in the novel but Gidding suggested changing it to a woman. Wise was initially hesitant, but in the end was happy with the switcheroo.

The main conflict in the story is between Leavitt and Hall, as their personalities and specialties do not mesh. Even though Leavitt is portrayed as much older, Reid and Olson were actually the exact same age.

It's the "Hollywood Age Differential," in which male and female characters of different generations are played by actors who are contemporaries.

There are two survivors of the Piedmont disaster: Jackson (George Mitchell), a 69-year-old kook who drinks Sterno (a liquid fuel used for campires) to combat his ulcers, and a 6-month-old baby who never stops crying. It turns out these peculiarities rendered them (mostly) immune to the effect of the alien virus.

The extraterrestrials, given the titular code name, are non-sentient green crystalline structures that are constantly growing and mutating, given the right environment... such as the human body. The result is that the blood in the body turns to a powder, which makes for a couple of gruesome autopsy scenes.

Paula Kelly plays Anson, the nurse who assists Hall in the Wildfire infirmary. She's smart and sassy, though not above accepting a little light groping from Mitchell. Both her and Hall have to work in large, clumsy environmental suits.

Another notable aspect of the film is the "odd man hypothesis." Although it's pretty much fictional bunk, the idea is that unmarried men are most likely to carry out dispassionate orders with large-scale effects -- like launching nuclear missiles, for example.

As someone who didn't get married until rather late in life, I'm amused at the notion that bachelors are just assumed to be weird. Tell it to my uncle, who didn't start a family until he was 60. Thus Hall is selected to carry the self-destruct key for the Wildfire station should the contagion break its barriers and threaten the world above. Though in this case the scenario is reversed: a 5-minute countdown is automatically initiated for a small nuclear bomb hidden in the lowest level, and it's Hall's job to turn it off.

This leads to pretty much the only genuine excitement in the film, where he has to clamber through the innards of the facility while dodging lasers and the like. He takes a couple of good shots to the hand and cheek.

I'd been looking forward to catching up with "The Andromeda Strain" for some time, and am sorry to say I was sorely disappointed. Some films stand the test of time, while others give birth to later, superior copycats.

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