“THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN”— A Space-Age Disaster


“The Andromeda Strain”

A Space-Age Disaster

Amos Lassen

When a satellite crashes near Piedmont a village in New Mexico, the local residents begin due a killer disease. By the time a team of scientists arrive  to investigate, the only survivors are an old tramp and an infant child. The team moves them to an underground lab and work around the clock to identify the virus,  that we learn, is somehow connected to an Earth bacteria-warfare project. It all began when residents  found and opened an off-course satellite. Something the capsule picked up in outer space kills everyone in town within minutes. The military activates Project Wildfire, an enormously expensive secret desert lab built specifically to fight the danger of contamination from extraterrestrial organisms. They assemble their top personnel— Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) and Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson)  who come into Piedmont in isolation suits, locate the capsule and discover that whatever it carries turns human blood into a fine dry powder very quickly. Now with just two unaffected survivors: a drunken old man, and a crying baby. Wildfire must isolate and identify the alien organism and concoct a medical defense against a contagion like something that had never be seen before.

The existential threat of a viral outbreak has been a topic for thrillers over time. Since the fall of communism, the threat of nuclear destruction has been largely replaced in the collective consciousness by that of a terrorist group releasing a biological weapon into the atmosphere. Because of that,  Robert Wise’s 1971 thriller “The Andromeda Strain” has lost none of its power to instill dread in the viewer during later decades.

We see a team of scientists assembled for a top secret operation which the US government wants kept under wraps. A satellite has crash landed in a small New Mexico village, unleashing an alien virus which has killed all life in the town. All life, that is, save for the baby and the elderly alcoholic, both of whom are transferred to a secret underground facility where the scientists must figure out what connects these two survivors so that they can develop an antidote. There’s also the small matter of ensuring the virus doesn’t escape the facility’s subterranean level, at which point an automatic self-destruct sequence will be used.

Most doomsday scenario movies divide their time between scientists, the military, the government and maybe some civilians but here the majority of the narrative is with the  to central team of researchers. For this to work, the film needs to convince us that we’re watching highly intelligent professionals go about their business and it  also needs to humanize its scientists, otherwise we might as well be watching robots at work.

As the quartet of brainiacs charged with saving all our hides, Arthur Hill, James Olson, Kate Reid and David Wayne who convince us of their characters’ abilities while investing these intellectual protagonists with a necessary degree of humanity. Much suspense comes from the idea that their own government is willing to sacrifice them if they can’t get the job done within a limited time frame. The offscreen presence of a president with a mistrust of science gives the film a now timely resonance.

“The Andromeda Strain” represents a more intellectual era, a time before Hollywood began appealing to the lowest common denominator, making no concessions to commercial appeal. All of the actors look like they’ve spent too much of their life working through the night, except singer turned actress Paula Kelly, whose lab assistant is the closest the film comes to giving us an audience surrogate.

Wise is one of the best filmmakers in mainstream American cinema, and his talent is fully on display here. The drama may take place in a handful of sterile rooms, but Wise makes sure that it plays out in a visually engrossing environment. Each layer of the underground facility is color-coded, a clever way of building tension as the scientists work their way down to the bottom layer where the fate of mankind is waiting for  them.

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