Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

The Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise, 1971) Robert Wise's return to science-fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still) after years in the musical field (West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Star!) proved that he was still as effective as a gritty story teller as he was a choreographer. Michael Crichton's first best-seller (he'd paid his way through medical school writing pulp novels and thrillers, then abandoned a potential medical career to continue writing) hit the wave of nervousness fearing "moon-germs" infesting Earth from the first Apollo moon-landings. Crichton had a fascinating little gambit—he filled the book with graphs and text and bibliography references that gave the book the air of legitimacy, when, in fact, he made everything up whole cloth, even the citations. Nobody cried "fowl," or hauled him before Oprah to be pilloried. He merely went on to write his series of oddly-cautionary fast-reads of the dangers of current technology, all like prose-screenplays waiting to be filmed, only occasionally departing from the formula to write something of his own interest ("The Great Train Robbery," "Eaters of the Dead"). His characters were largely cyphers, until after a brief flirtation with movie-making, all of his male lead characters seemed to be based on Sean Connery (who starred in Crichton's film of his own The Great Train Robbery).*
But, that's the future. For The Andromeda Strain, Wise pulled off a similar cinematic trick to keep it real—he didn't cast stars, just good character actors (and a couple of formidable stage actors) for the leads, filmed what was essentially a "bottle show" (mostly taking place in a contained space with few exteriors in an unfussy, clean style in wide panavision and split-screen, and included the first instance of on-screen date/time/location computer updates graphiced across the screen to orient ourselves. It's played out in as un-melodramatic a way as was possible with minimum effects.
Arthur Hill, David Wayne, Kate Reid and James Olson:
just fine actors who could "sell" the impossible.
Wise and screenwriter Nelson Giddings do a thorough job of negotiating Crichton's juggled narrative and technical jargon, not withholding anything essential to the investigation no matter how arcane, and then boil it down like a detective story to the central puzzle: why two disparate survivors of a decimating encounter with a returning space capsule escaped having their blood crystallized, specifically, how is a perfectly healthy, squawling baby similar to a decrepit vagabond with a bleeding ulcer and a taste for drinking sterno. Obvious answers are discarded one by one and it's a neat exercise in re-thinking a problem. 
Meanwhile, there's a lot of specific and very intricate laboratory work going on, that not only shows the process, but the sheer grinding duplication that such a thorough testing and deciphering must entail. And for once, the examination that is made of Andromeda is not dumbed down with off-screen work and a bursting entrance through a door announcing what new discovery has been made; a casual observer with no history of medicine or biology will learn a lot about organisms and infections and how they function, as well as the odd lesson in decision-making, the prejudice against epilepsy-sufferers and feng shui as related to color.
It's smart. And it assumes the viewer is smart enough to follow along, and that's refreshing (especially compared to its mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging remake—see below), and it's core cast (the irreplaceable Arthur Hill and Kate Reid, David Wayne and James Olsen) does a terrific job of underplaying the drama (the smaller, more bureaucratic roles have a tendency to drift towards melodrama and easy caricature), and it has a smashing pay-off with one of the best cliff-hangers in sci-fi history (as did the book, and you'd have to be pretty incompetent (see below) to keep it from being a nail-biter.
It's a neglected techno-thriller from two of the masters of their respective crafts at the top of their games.

From the top of the game to the bottom of the barrel. The A & E network aired a two-part miniseries that "updated" "The Andromeda Strain." "Update" must be Hollywood code for "screwing up." As produced by the Scott brothers (Ridley and Tony), directed by Mikael Solomon (cinematographer for Ron Howard and James Cameron, so he's done hazard-duty), and scripted by Robert Schenkkan (a Pulitzer Prize winner for the play "The Kentucky Cycle"), this botched version of the novel by "J. Michael Crichton" (as he was listed in the credits. He never went by that pen-name ever) takes the biological warfare angle from Wise's film and makes it the central subject of the movie. The Wildfire crew is expanded from four experts to five ethnically and discipline-diverse researchers (to make it CSI-familiar—how novel), and they're all sniping unpleasant people--Jeremy Stone (Benjamin Bratt) is a fair-weather father/absent husband, who's had a past affair with one of the other crew, and chooses to revive it while the world is supposedly coming to an end—just the kind of guy I want in a crisis. The film-makers play up the ick factor with "Andromeda" expanding its field to drive low inhabitants crazy, and work its way up the food-chain, although the special effects boys peter out at the end and become content to represent the infection as a red optical smudge. The President of the United States becomes a major figure, albeit one who sits around being befuddled, but always has a sage bit of wisdom for each new development. And there's the creepy, snarky reporter who's looking for The Big Story (no matter who it hurts) and he's played by Eric McCormack ("Will & Grace") with vacillating priorities.

The central question—what does a baby have in common with a sterno-drinking bum—is tossed off, ignored, and rendered irrelevant (as are the survivors) in favor of new-science voodoo of worm-holes, time-discrepancies and other space-rot, that, if anybody actually sat down and thought about it, makes the Andromeda bacillus completely devoid of a point of origin. But hey, if you can combine the original with "
CSI," and plot-elements of Contact, and, yes, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, it should be good enough for an unchoosy Sci-Fi Channel subscriber, one who's happy with the sub-par "original movies" along the lines of "T-REX Mutants!" Somewhere along the way, the broadcast channel got upped to A & E (that stands for "Arts and Entertainment"—it's where you can see such low-hanging fare as "Duck Dynasty" and "Storage War$")—and, still, they must feel snookered at the result.*

It's a nasty, stupid piece of work, done with little care for its viewers or source material. Hopefully, Crichton got some money out of it (he had nothing to do with it, not even producing).

With all this new technology why do these schmoes insist on re-making GOOD science fiction films (they
 also "updated" Wise's The Day The Earth Stood Still, which, when it was released, was, frankly, still-born)? Why don't they make a better version of Damnation Alley, or Saturn 3, or even Crichton's Terminal ManThose might be worth a try, given their history. Maybe something good could actually come of it.
* Let's list them:  Munro from "Congo", Norman Johnson from "Sphere," Alan Grant from "Jurassic Park," and, of course, John Connor from "Rising Sun."

** They didn't. Trade ads crowed that ten million souls watched this drek.


  1. One of my favorite moments in acting is from Arthur Hill, when his character answers the door at a dinner party to find two military officers who say "There's been a fire." His immediate internal shifting of gears from frivolous host to serious scientist, communicated by body posture and tone of voice, was amazing.

  2. Wait'll you see today's scene, buddy. It has "you" written all over it.