The Andromeda Strain (1971)

*. This is a strange movie, and maybe the strangest thing about it is that you wouldn’t expect it to be strange at all.
*. First, the premise was nothing new. After an opening that recalls Village of the Damned it follows a basic outline akin to other genre films like The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). The idea of a deadly microbe or disease from space endangering the Earth is just The War of the Worlds in reverse. In other words, pretty standard SF fare.
*. Second, Michael Crichton, whatever else you might think of him, was hardly an eccentric talent. The Andromeda Strain was his breakthrough novel and gave a good indication of what was to come. He would, throughout his career, remain very much a popular writer of a traditional sort, an old-school storyteller of fantastic tales without much interest in character or literary effects. In hindsight, you would expect any film with his name attached to it to be a hit, but you wouldn’t expect it to be experimental or groundbreaking in any way.
*. Third, I don’t think Robert Wise ranks very high on anyone’s list of maverick directors. By this point he’d shown an ability to work in virtually any genre without any distinctive or trademark style carrying over from one project to the next.
*. Given all of the above, you’d be justified in thinking that The Andromeda Strain would be a conventional SF adventure. But it isn’t. It’s actually quite unusual.
*. In the first place there is the use of the split-screen effect. This is most dramatic in the scene where the doctors investigate the dead town, going from door to window to door on one side of the screen with what they’re looking at appearing in a “window” frame on the other side of the screen. But the use of a split-focus diopter is almost as striking an effect, and it’s used here a lot. Now I’m not sure either of these techniques works all that well, but they do give the proceedings an eerie feeling.

*. Then there is the emphasis on tech, and the slow pace, especially in the middle part of the film. It’s a detective story where the detection is the result of employing the painstaking, trial-and-error scientific method. Fancy machines and computers are more important than brains in solving the mystery of the alien strain.
*. The characters then recede in importance, except in so far as they are betrayed by human frailties and weaknesses. Indeed, at the end I couldn’t remember the name of a single one of the doctors.
*. Roger Ebert: “The human characters almost seem an embarrassment to the Wildfire Project, a hermetically sealed laboratory on five levels below ground. . . . What’s fascinating is the way the humans pick up the computer state of mind. They occasionally lapse into humanity (particularly in the case of Kate Reid, as a crusty lady biologist of a certain age). But when the going gets tough, they become abstract and machine-like even toward each other.” When Dr. Stone leads Dr. Hall up the central core, telling him when to duck to avoid the lasers, it’s like he’s playing a video game.
*. Wise was afraid that making one of the doctors a woman (none are in the novel) would be like adding Raquel Welch to Fantastic Voyage. No chance of that here! They went the other way, with Kate Reid appearing as the anti-Welch in her baggy coveralls and unsexy specs. That’s progress, of a kind.
*. The look of the film, from the curving, colour-coded hallways to the special effects were, I’m sure, a lot more interesting in 1971 than they are now. Aside from the stuff that seems downright funny today, like the disco helmet worn during the xenon-flash decontamination, this is really the future that wasn’t, a future that is now a relic of our (fictional) past.
*. Pauline Kael: “The suspense is strong, but not pleasurable.” Hm. I can’t make out what this means. Suspense is always a nervous thrill that we enjoy or find pleasurable in the same way we enjoy being scared. If it’s strong that usually means it’s working. If it’s not pleasurable then it’s not working. So what is Kael’s point?
*. Personally, I don’t find it very suspenseful. As I’ve been saying, I think it’s a strange movie, and I appreciate how different it is from the usual formula. However I’m not sure how well any of it works in the end. On the one hand, it probably deserves to be better known. On the other, I can understand why it has been largely forgotten.

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