Movie Review: The Andromeda Strain (1971)
MOVIE REVIEW: THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971)
I first saw The Andromeda Strain at a drive-in when I was nine. Despite my youth, the thriller left an indelible impact on me nearly half a century later, even to this day.
The film instilled an early appreciation for science. Graphically, sometimes horrifically, it illustrated what a true horror movie was (and is) — a forgotten reminder that the gravest threats to our safety, security, and human civilization are not monsters nor distorted fictional figments of the imagination, but rather very real hidden dangers we can’t see, nor hear, nor measure.
Given the current coronavirus crisis, a reflection of the 1971 film on a killer epidemic is both timely and fitting.
The movie is based on Michael Crichton’s science fiction novel of the same title published in 1969. Then, only 27 at the time of the book’s release, Crichton would go on to write books that inspired 11 movies in all, including The Great Train Robbery, Rising Sun, Jurassic Park, The Lost World, and State of Fear.
The Andromeda Strain was directed by Robert Wise, then one of the most commercially successful directors of the time, evidenced by West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. This was clearly a movie guided by stellar writing and artful direction. The only criticism from a studio standpoint was, it might have been too dark, and too realistic for most audiences.
The Andromeda Strain opens with top-level scientists being summoned to a secret underground test lab in Nevada, tasked with researching biological hazards. Though somewhat dated now fifty years later, everything about this film still looks plausible. One can imagine facilities like this which certainly do exist.
There are some remarkable technical marvels in the film. Since it was made long before CGI, hologram-type figures had to be shot in multiple layers. Lasers also factor into the story. There are also some disturbing scenes with animal testing which were so upsetting that I was compelled to research exactly how they were filmed. Without giving too much away, the animals in the lab subject to testing were filmed in a chamber and breathed carbon dioxide. Then, when they pass out (this is a very disturbing scene), a team of vets rush onto the set and revive the creatures with oxygen off-camera. The film makes it appear they’re dying from the virus.
And speaking of the virus — never has anything looked so frightening as microscopic specs crawling around inside a petri dish. Watching the virus grow and the explode out of control in the lab is terrifying, especially in these contemporary times.
The film’s very best scenes document the laborious testing procedures which end with one dead end after another, as the clock is ticking on humanity. Since the virus has infected a small town and can spread, it’s up to the scientists to put in 20-hour days, testing and re-testing to try and save the planet. There’s one astounding scene when one of the scientists is working alone in the lab watching a monitor when the virus suddenly explodes into something resembling the bubonic plague. It’s absolutely terrifying.
Arthur Hill plays the lead researcher, but Kate Ried steals the movie. The original book had mostly all-male characters, but the production changed one of the researchers to a female. That turned out to be a wise creative adjustment. Think of a badass intellectual Sigourney Weaver, only bookishly realistic.
The Andromeda Strain is by no means a perfect film. It’s flawed with faux-suspenseful scenes that really aren’t necessary. For instance, we really don’t need a chase scene within the top-secret Wildfire biological bunker. The virus is scary enough without the added Mission Impossible-like countdown to self-destruction.
On a more personal note, I have seen The Andromeda Strain perhaps twice since my initial viewing as a child. I saw it again about 25 years ago and then watched it another time on TCM a few years ago before anyone thought it was a modern-day commentary. Each viewing gave me a different perspective. I was struck by one of the final scenes which shows the researcher (Arthur Hill) testifying before Congress on the aftermath of a viral outbreak. In what is a very plausible scenario we’re going through today, Hill essentially says we’re focusing on the wrong enemies. The more serious threats to us all are those things we can’t see and know way too little about.
How prophetic that warning turns out to be.
Note: I recommend giving 1971 “The Andromeda Strain” original film a viewing. I cannot recommend the remake, which I have no interest in seeing.