Arrow Video: The Andromeda Strain (1971) - Reviewed

Jack-of-all-trades producer-editor-director Robert Wise excelled at every genre he tried his hand at.  Whether it be film noir such as The Set-Up, musicals such as West Side Story and The Sound of Music, war with The Sand Pebbles, horror with The Haunting and last but not least, science fiction with his 1951 seminal classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.  Never one to be boxed into one genre, the late and legendary Wise collaborated with visual effects guru Douglas Trumbull and returned to science fiction twice more in his career with Star Trek: The Motion Picture and in the recently re-released 4K restored Arrow Video blu-ray of Jurassic Park novelist Michael Crichton’s bestselling killer space-virus thriller The Andromeda Strain.

The first of Crichton’s books to be published using his real name and an instant critical and commercial success, The Andromeda Strain tells the nerve wracking and still terrifying tale of a different kind of extraterrestrial invasion that can’t be seen by the naked eye and can kill you instantly before you realize you’ve inadvertently inhaled it.  Told in flashback, The Andromeda Strain chronicles a top-secret U.S. government operation code-named Project Scoop involving a crash-landed military satellite which, upon being cracked open in Piedmont, New Mexico, unleashes a microscopic alien organism that wipes out all forms of life in the immediate area.  All but two, a 6-month old wailing infant and a 69-year-old alcoholic, inexplicably survive the extraterrestrial viral outbreak.

It’s up to a team of four scientists across the country, Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill), Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson), Dr. Charles Dutton (David Wayne) and Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid) to try and collect, quarantine and analyze the satellite to ascertain how the organism functions and whether or not it can be stopped.  Initially told on the Earth’s surface, the book and film shift gears upon descent into a deep underground medical base code-named Wildfire and becomes almost like a space exploration film where technologically advanced laboratories and electron microscopes work to isolate and identify the organism. 

It is here where The Andromeda Strain starts to take on an otherworldly quality with sterilized rooms, intensely probing decontamination procedures, elaborate robotic arms operated by remote control and a nuclear self-destruct fail-safe device armed with drug-laced lasers should the deadly space organism break out of the tight confines of the laboratory.  As with the novel, what makes Crichton’s tale of a microscopic extraterrestrial outbreak so effective is the author’s background in medicine.  For however far fetched a story like this could and should be, The Andromeda Strain is grounded in plausibility with a systematic medical approach to trying to address piece-by-piece how the virus, code-named Andromeda, functions and why two human beings on opposite sides of the age spectrum managed to survive while everyone around them dropped dead.

Visually, The Andromeda Strain is at once controlled and wild, sterile and antiseptic as well as messy.  Photographed in panoramic widescreen by Soylent Green and Star Trek: The Motion Picture cinematographer Richard H. Kline, the film is a cacophony of vast wide shots, tightly enclosed close-ups and a still experimental variety of split-screen montages with the screen narrowing down to oblongs as a variety of rectangular shapes displaying key images pop up throughout the screen.  Split-screen has been a technique both dated and, in the cases of filmmakers like Brian De Palma and Darren Aronofsky, pioneering and I would be hard pressed to say I’ve ever seen it used quite like it has been in The Andromeda Strain.

As with the cinematography and futuristic set design of the underground laboratory/space-station of sorts, The Andromeda Strain wonderfully exploits the visual effects wizardry of Douglas Trumbull.  Fresh off of his still revolutionary work on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Trumbull employs a variety of innovative as well as traditional photographic techniques to create some wild imagery of an ever mutating space microorganism.  Between shots of a glowing green, blob-like organism with some still visually arresting effects of a crystalline creature of hexagonal shapes, Trumbull also provides numerous video screens for computer controlled analytical systems within the deep underground Wildfire base.

Sonically, The Andromeda Strain is no less extraterrestrial than its sterile and otherworldly vistas, thanks to a nightmarish avant-garde atonal electronic score by American Jazz musician Gil Mellé.  After becoming the first composer to score a television theme for Night Gallery comprised entirely of electronic instruments, The Andromeda Strain marked Mellé’s first original score for a feature film. 

Much like Lalo Schifrin’s largely electronic ambient score for George Lucas’ directorial debut THX 1138, the robotic, mechanical soundscape of beeps coupled with dissonant, percussive scratching sounds perfectly compliments the feel of the computerized and sterile underground laboratory.  One could argue Mellé’s score to a degree informed the film score composition techniques of John Carpenter as the electronic music never relieves the viewer of the tension or sense of doom.

Last but not least, The Andromeda Strain cements its real-world plausibility thanks to the relatable and compelling ensemble cast.  Arthur Hill’s take on Dr. Jeremy Stone, for instance, simultaneously exudes confidence as the team leader as well the anxieties of operating under bureaucratic and military secrecy.  Traverse City, Michigan based actor David Wayne, already a veteran at this stage of his career, brings an aged and professorial wisdom to Dr. Charles Dutton. 

In one of the more interesting detours from the novel, it was suggested Dr. Peter Leavitt be made into a female character, much to Wise’s initial objection until receiving the enthusiastic approval of the character change from fellow doctors.  Re-imagined as the middle-aged Dr. Ruth Leavitt and played with gusto by character actress Kate Reid, Leavitt is easily the film’s most colorful and spunky character with a lot of relatable cantankerous sass peppered in with her keen scientific insight.  And last but not least is James Olson as Dr. Mark Hall as the young single man of the group carrying a heavy responsibility around his neck that could determine the survival of humankind.

Released theatrically in 1971, the modestly budgeted thriller sporting key visual effects and large set pieces ranked as the 16th highest grossing film of the year and fared well with both critics and audiences.  The film also managed to garner two Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Film Editing.  In the decades since, the film’s stature in science-fiction fantasy lore as well as its significance in the medical procedural thriller has only grown with age. 

In 2003, for instance, the Infectious Diseases Society of America called The Andromeda Strain ‘the most significant, scientifically accurate and prototypic of all films’ of the killer virus subgenre.  Sometime in 2008, Crichton’s still gripping tale was remade by A&E Network as a two-part television miniseries with Hard Rain director Mikael Salomon helming the project under the executive production of Tony and Ridley Scott though numerous embellishments in the plot tend to weaken the air of realism so well laid out in the 1971 adaptation.   

Seen now, Robert Wise’s film of Michael Crichton’s novel is at once a product of its time and yet thematically remains immediate.  With all of the planet Earth’s inhabitants roaming freely in the open air, there’s no telling where or when infectious diseases floating either in the far reaches of outer space or buried deep within the Earth will appear and, for that matter, how humankind will deal with them.  Furthermore, are our efforts to quarantine and contain a fatal viral outbreak, whether it be Earthly or unearthly in origin, ever truly foolproof?  As we continue to move ahead into the next millennia, The Andromeda Strain serves as a chilling reminder that the medical war against invisible and often undetectable deadly microorganisms is far from ever being over. 

- Andrew Kotwicki