The Andromeda Strain (1971)

 

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Directed by Robert Wise

Written by Nelson Gidding (based on the Michael Crichton novel)

Starring: Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson, Kate Reid

Tagline: The Suspense Will Last Through Your Lifetime!

Trivia: Universal Studios used many of the special effects developed for the film for their TV productions throughout the decade.

One of the best Sci-Fi films of the 1970s, The Andromeda Strain imagines a deadly microbe arriving on a crashed space satellite that threatens to start a global pandemic. The movie follows a group of scientists who must work against the clock to prevent the unthinkable from happening. Filmed like a documentary, The Andromeda Strain is a cerebral film about the process of science itself, a high tech detective story.

The film opens with a group of Air Force officers investigating the crashed satellite near a small town in Arizona. Over the radio transmission they begin to scream in terror and then everything goes silent.  It’s revealed the Air Force has declared the site a wildfire, a code word for a dangerous organism landing from space.  In response, a team of super scientists are called in to find a cure.

The absence of a recognizable star works to the film’s advantage. The four lead actors playing the scientists all did a fantastic job. Arthur Hill is the lead scientist, the brains behind the project.  David Wayne is the microbiologist, the senior member of the team. James Olson plays a cocky surgeon and Kate Reid is the lone female scientist (in the novel all the scientists are male). Despite some clunky dialogue at times – they make a pretty good team.

In a creepy sequence Stone and Hall must investigate the town where the satellite crashed, a rural community where everyone died instantly, at least upon initial investigation.  Imagine an entire town literally dropping dead at the same time.

Then the four scientists convene at the Wildfire research lab deep in the Nevada desert.  There are five levels to the complex, each one more sterile than the next.  Once again the scenes are engaging as the they must sterilize themselves as they go deeper into the facility.  The effects were designed by Douglas Trumbull who had worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey, for 1971 the technology looks fairly futuristic.

Once they make it to the fifth level, the intensive work begins of isolating the germ. Even though the dialogue gets technical at times, the visuals and the acting are engaging enough. And the climax is full of suspense, for if they fail the entire complex will self-destruct in an atomic blast.

Based on the 1969 novel by Michael Crichton, the story capitalizes on space age anxieties of deadly particles introducing a deadly disease.  There’s also a minor subplot about the Wildfire lab being a cover for a biological warfare project, a topic still screaming for a great film or documentary.

With a veteran director, a stalwart cast, and source material from Crichton who would have a pivotal influence on the Sci-Fi genre in the decades to come, The Andromeda Strain exemplifies the genre at its best.

 

 

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