I swore that I would do my best to stay away from plague movies like “Contagion” (2011) and “The Andromeda Strain” (1971) during the current coronavirus pandemic, because I thought that going there would be too depressing. But with a gentle nudge of encouragement from my wife, I decided to tackle “The Andromeda Strain” because there’s still enough ‘science fiction’ there to explore without being too ripped from today’s headlines.
We watched the movie over Easter Weekend (yes, we’re strange; we accept that) and seeing it again was surprisingly therapeutic. The movie, directed by Oscar winning director Robert Wise (“West Side Story” “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” “The Day The Earth Stood Still”) from a book by the Michael Crichton (“Westworld” “ER” “Jurassic Park”) has, for the most part, withstood the test of time as a brilliant cautionary tale. The pacing of the film is a lot slower than modern audiences might be used to, but the nail-biter of a final act more than rewards a patient viewer.
*****SCOOP-SIZED SPOILERS! TOP-SECRET!!*****
Told in flashback to a congressional committee by government scientist Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill), his story begins with a top-secret US sample retrieval mission from outer space called “SCOOP” which has landed in the remote Nevadan town of Piedmont. Two military scouts were sent to retrieve the capsule, but contact is lost shortly after they arrive at the site. The US military immediately activates a top-secret team to deal with what could be an extraterrestrial contaminant. Dr. Stone is named leader of the team, which includes would-be Alaska retiree Dr. Charles Dutton (David Wayne), the anti-establishment Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid) and a young surgeon, Dr. Mark Hall (James Olsen). The activation is so urgent that Dr. Hall is summoned by armed soldiers right before he is about to cut into a patient. The four of them are to report to a top-secret subterranean facility deep in the Nevada desert codenamed “Wildfire”, cleverly disguised as a (working) US Agricultural Research station on the surface. Dutton and Leavitt drive on ahead to Wildfire, while Stone and Hall are sent into Piedmont, wearing full protective gear, to retrieve the SCOOP return capsule.
The hovering helicopter, flown by a protected pilot, extends a ladder to lower the two doctors into the town, where they find lifeless bodies everywhere. Birds pecking at the corpses are quickly gassed to prevent escape with a possible active contaminant in their systems. None of the dead even had time to get back to their nearby homes. Whatever happened in Piedmont was near-instantly lethal. Furthermore, it’s discovered that their blood has been fully clotted into powder.
Inside the local doctor’s office, they find the SCOOP capsule, which was foolishly opened by the local doctor, and immediately contaminated the town in a matter of minutes. The sample return of the capsule is then safely stowed into a bag to be taken back to Wildfire. As Stone and Hill walk towards the edge of town, they find evidence that some of the locals had time enough to commit suicide. Right before going back to their hovering chopper, Stone and Hill hear the cry of an abandoned baby… and have a run-in with a knife-wielding local drunk named Jackson (George Mitchell). Jackson and the baby are the only two survivors left in Piedmont. Both are immediately taken back to Wildfire as patients, along with Stone, Hall and the SCOOP capsule.
After decontaminating and disposing of their hazmat suits, Stone and Hall join Dutton and Leavitt in the top level of five circular levels leading to the core of the Wildfire research station (much like Dante and the Nine Circles of the Inferno, from “The Divine Comedy”). Each level is color-coded to denote its level of sterility, with the fifth uppermost level being bright red, descending to to solid white, fully-sterile core. The rounded corridors of Wildfire very much resemble the corridors of the refit USS Enterprise in director Wise’s later “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979).
Stone leads the team to a communications room in the red level, where he was expecting an urgent communication with the White House. The communique has yet to be received. It is soon revealed, using the quasi-flashback format of the film, that a shred of paper somehow got stuck in the messaging alert bell, thus preventing its chiming with the arrival an incoming messages. It’s laughable today that all communications within the fictional, highly advanced Wildfire could be held up by a shred of paper, but hey, that’s 1971 telecom tech for you…
Yes, the telecommunications technology of the movie is one of the few things that (radically) dates “Andromeda Strain”, yet the film still maintains an overall futuristic chic thanks to an unconventionally abstract score by Gil Melle (“The Night Gallery” “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”), slick cinematography by Richard Kline (generous use of dual-focus split diopters) and clean, sparse set decoration by Ruby R. Levitt. There are aspects of this nearly 50-year old movie that still feel somewhat innovative, even today.
Dr. Stone and his team will have to be sterilized anew for access to each level, using chemical baths, harsh epidermal peels, and other increasingly unpleasant methods to continue their access to Wildfire’s top-secret core, including burning their spent clothing (which is made of paper-like cloth). Solid food also becomes a thing of the past, as the scientists are given a citrus-tasting liquid as their sole means of nourishment during their stay. The team’s newly prescribed nutrition is not too unlike what one receives for a colonoscopy preparation (as a veteran of several, I can vouch). Stone also gives Hall a key to be worn around his neck at all times. The key is used to stop the nuclear self-destruction of the Wildfire facility in the event of runaway contamination. Hall isn’t sure if he has what it takes to activate a nuclear bomb, but Stone clarifies it for him… the key is used only to deactivate the bomb, which is automatically set to detonate in the event of a breach. If the key isn’t inserted into one of several substations throughout the facility within five minutes of the bomb’s activation, Wildfire would be obliterated in a sterilizing nuclear blast, along with all potential sources of bio contamination within the complex. Hall was chosen for this enormous responsibility based upon the “Odd Man Hypothesis”, which posits that an unattached male would be the most objective to wield such responsibility in the event of a crisis.
Meanwhile, the old drunk Jackson and the baby are being cared for in a room accessible only through full-body, glove-like hazmat suits which are entered via airtight hatches at either end of the infirmary. The nurse on duty is Karen Anson (Paula Kelly, of 1973’s “Soylent Green”), and she has her hands full between a crying, hungry baby and the obstinate, dirty old man who can’t keep his paws off of her once he regains consciousness. Not knowing what exactly what has kept the two patients alive despite their heavy exposure in Piedmont makes them both pariahs…unable to be touched outside of gloved hands and rubber hazmat suits. Hall is sent in to join Karen, as he is a physician first and foremost. Eventually it’s revealed that Jackson is a sterno drinker (sterno is a toxic alcohol-based solvent, used for a cheap high). Hall wonders if Jackson’s drinking and the baby’s incessant cries of hunger are a link to their immunity.
The team finally make their way to the white Wildfire core, with its impressive scanning microscope equipment and test animals used to determine the size and nature of the Piedmont contaminant. This is where they get down to brass tacks.
Stone and Leavitt carefully scan the outside of the SCOOP capsule and find a microscopic meteorite with a green goo in some of its pores. The substance, now codenamed “Andromeda”, looks like animated “pistachio ice cream” (as described by Dr. Stone). Andromeda is soon determined to have a crystalline structure, yet it’s definitely alive, and appears to be growing… though it ingests energy in ways radically different from traditional biochemical life on Earth. Whatever Andromeda is, it’s not from the neighborhood.
It is deduced that Andromeda is an airborne pathogen that is ingested directly into the lungs. This discovery is made using various-sized air filters, down to a two micron level, which kills both a lab rat and a small monkey. Leavitt recognizes that this is a genuine first contact with extraterrestrial life. She also realizes that Stone’s funding for the $90 million Wildfire facility was predicated on finding new, space-borne substances like Andromeda for use in biowarfare (foreshadowing Ridley Scott’s “ALIEN”). Stone deflects Leavitt’s criticism, urging her to focus on the immediate issue at hand.
Note: the animals used in the film were not killed; they were rendered unconscious through brief asphyxiation, but revived later on. Yes, that is still unspeakably cruel treatment of animals, but sadly, the film was made before the Humane Society carefully monitored animal care in TV & films.
A US fighter jet flying a scouting mission over Piedmont crashes, all of its rubber components, including air hoses, corroded within seconds. The rubber pieces of the jet are actually a plastic that the airborne Andromeda eats away. This happens as the team recommends to the president that he prepare a nuclear strike over Piedmont to prevent the spread of Andromeda. The president’s advisors are resistant to the Wildfire team’s recommendation.
With communications still unknowingly fouled, tensions rise in Wildfire, as both Leavitt and Dutton gang up on Stone, accusing him of selling out to the military. Later on, as Ruth, an undisclosed epileptic, is working alone in the lab when she suffers a prolonged petit mal seizure. She kept her condition hidden for fear of stigma and discrimination. She is angry at herself for losing valuable observation time of Andromeda’s rapid reproduction rate.
Meanwhile, a frustrated Hall finally makes a breakthrough; Andromeda can only exist in a narrow pH range within the blood. Drunken Jackson’s blood was too acidic from drinking sterno, while the baby’s blood was too alkaline from constant crying. As Hall has this eureka moment, the lab is contaminated! A rubber seal within the lab has corroded, just like the rubber within the jet. Dr. Dutton was working in a room now flooding with Andromeda, and he begins to panic. As Stone tries to pump pure oxygen into the room for Dutton, Hall urges him to do the opposite; go to normal air, and have Dutton take rapid, shallow breaths. Worried that the elderly Dutton will hyperventilate, Hall is wondering exactly how Dutton hasn’t yet died. Before long, it is discovered (a bit too conveniently) that Andromeda has mutated into a corrosive, but non-lethal form. Dutton can breathe easily now. As the team exit the core, Ruth freezes upon seeing the flashing red alarm light, and experiences a grand mal seizure. Immediately her body begins to stiffen, as she loses consciousness. Technicians run away from her, fearing she’s been infected with Andromeda. Hall, of course, realizes the truth of what’s happening and gets a brave nurse to help him treat Ruth.
A recovered Ruth and Stone immediately realize that the crystalline-based life form of Andromeda actually feeds off of atomic energy. This prompts Stone to urgently call the president’s team, telling them to ignore their earlier recommendation for the nuclear strike over Piedmont. With the air strike successfully aborted, it’s now up to “Odd Man” Mark Hall to try to stop Wildfire’s own self-destruct protocol from activation, which automatically kicked in when the bottom core’s seals were corroded by Andromeda. Hall and Stone are locked in the core, which is on automated lockdown. With less than five minutes till nuclear self-destruct, Hall takes his key and manually enters Wildfire’s central core, dodging a series of lasers used to kill escaped lab animals. Hall, weakened from laser strikes to his face and hand, finally reaches a self-destruct substation and deactivates the countdown with only eight seconds left…
Cutting back to the present, we see Dr. Stone once again testifying before the congressional committee, wondering if they’ll be lucky enough to avert disaster again in the future.
I still have a copy of the late Michael Crichton’s original 1969 novel of “The Andromeda Strain” in my garage, but it’s been many years since I’ve read it. I do remember a few differences, such as the character of Dr. Leavitt being male in the novel (the gender swap was a wise one, as Kate Reid gave an amazing performance in the film), along with a few other minor changes. Crichton wrote the novel in his mid 20s, while studying abroad in England. He would of course, later write and direct the 1973 film “Westworld” (the original inspiration for the current HBO TV series), and would achieve arguably his greatest fame with the 1990 novel “Jurassic Park”, which became a runaway film franchise only a few years later. There was also, of course, the long-running TV series “ER” (1994-2009), some of which was based on Crichton’s own experiences as a medical doctor.
In “The Andromeda Strain” there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him moment as Crichton (unmistakably bearded) has a cameo as a doctor observing Dr. Hall from behind glass, just as Hall is about to be drafted for Wildfire. Sadly, Crichton died in 2008 from complications of lymphoma. As a medical doctor, prolific author, screenwriter, producer and director, Crichton was a hugely talented man who lived his shortened life to the fullest. His impressive IMDb page is here.
Oscar-winning director Robert Wise (1914-2005) was well known for his classic musicals “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music,” as well as many other feature films. “The Andromeda Strain” marks the second of Wise’s three science fiction classics; the other two being “The Day The Earth Stood Still” (1951) and “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979).
Wise used cinematographer Richard Kline for “The Andromeda Strain”, and would bring him back for “Star Trek” 8 years later. In fact, you can see many touches used for both films, such as their overall clean look and heavy use of split diopters to allow two focal points in a single image. After years of critical panning (even among Star Trek fans), “Star Trek: TMP” has recently seen a resurgence in popularity, much of it following the release of “The Director’s Cut” DVD in 2001, which saw many subtle improvements made to the FX and editing of the film (a Blu-Ray of the Special Edition was in the planning stages as of last summer). Wise cut his teeth as an editor on Orson Welles’ classic “Citizen Kane” (1941). His full IMDb page is here.
Then, of course, there was A&E Network’s miniseries remake of “The Andromeda Strain” in 2008. A much more diverse cast is one of the few highlights in this otherwise lukewarm remake of the book. An unnecessary romantic subplot is added between Dr. Jeremy Stone (Benjamin Bratt) and new character Dr. Angela Noyce (Christa Miller). The civilian character of Dr. Mark Hall is now inexplicably changed to military surgeon Maj. Bill Keane (Rick Schroder), who is also revealed to be a closeted gay man living in fear of a dishonorable discharge (this was made before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”). Eric McCormack (“Will & Grace”) is superfluously added as tabloid investigative journalist Jack Nash. Many of these flourishes are intended to make the characters more dimensional, but the result is diluted overall tension in favor of needless melodrama. The miniseries loses the quasi-documentary, clocklike efficiency of Robert Wise’s classic.
For me, the worst twist of the miniseries was the changing of Andromeda’s nature, from an extraterrestrial life form into a human-made bioweapon. The awe of the original is gone with that revelation. There is also an implicit time travel twist added into the ending, which suggests the capsule that crashed into Piedmont came from the future (via a wormhole) after a sample of Andromeda was saved following the near-disaster in the present-day. Ugh.
Never mind all of that. Just stick to the 1971 original, and you’ll be fine.
Safe Distance Viewing.
“Andromeda Strain” takes the old plague story and adds just enough sci-fi flavoring to make it work as a story of first contact between humans and extraterrestrial life gone disastrously wrong. There are elements of the movie’s medical research technology that wouldn’t be too out of place in a modern research lab. In fact, given the current novel coronavirus outbreak, I’m guessing some of that fictional Wildfire equipment would be most welcome in a few national laboratories right now, despite its age. Though the film makes the US government seem a lot more competent that it has turned out to be in our current crisis, it also reminds us that while this devastating pandemic has killed thousands of our fellow human beings, it could always be much worse. I found that last point oddly comforting.
There are a few safe-distancing ways to enjoy “The Andromeda Strain”; you can order the DVD/Blu-Ray through Amazon.com, or you can simply rent it via streaming on Amazon Prime Video or YouTube for $3.99 (US). As usual during this current global crisis, I urge every single one of my readers to say home as much as possible, wear mask & gloves outside, practice safe-distancing and look out for each other as best you can. Listen to scientists, not politicians. While the current novel coronavirus doesn’t have the near-instant lethality or mortality rate of Andromeda, it’s butcher’s bill to date has already been far too high. Let’s not extend its grim reach in any way.
Be safe and take care!