2020 has been one hell of a year, with the world facing an ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It seems either fitting, then – or perhaps deeply inappropriate – to revisit Robert Wise’s 1971 science fiction thriller The Andromeda Strain. Based on the Michael Crichton novel of the same name, it foreshadowed not only the boom in similar Crichton adaptations two decades later but also an entire genre of similar virus-affected thrillers. It focuses on scientists doing their jobs, running against the clock to crack the nature of the threat and to find a cure for it.
When a government satellite crashes into a small New Mexico town, a team is dispatched for retrieval. They find the entire town dead; killed by an unknown lethal pathogen collected by the satellite while in the Earth’s orbit. Within minutes this initial team is dead as well. The US military brings an emergency plan into effect, pulling four scientists out of their homes late in the evening and transporting them to an underground facility in the desert: the ultimate in secure laboratories.
The Andromeda Strain really does feel relevant to today’s real-life pandemic, representing as it does an uncontrolled outbreak of a new and unknown virus. The film’s opening act is a deeply unnerving one as an entire town is found lying dead on the street and in their homes; the only survivors a rambling alcoholic and a crying baby.
The team of scientists enlisted to handle the threat bring with them a surprisingly strong sense of authenticity. They are professional, highly capable, and generally sound very convincing when discussing the crisis. Michael Crichton always had a gift for assembling pop science into dialogue that easily ‘talked the talk’ – even if its accuracy tended to stumble when observed too closely. The team also benefits from the casting of four comparative unknowns – Arthur Hill, James Olson, David Wayne, and Kate Reid – making it easier to see the characters without popular stars in the way. It is particularly welcome to see Kate Reid in the film as Dr Ruth Leavitt. Crichton’s novel featured an all-male team, and it was director Robert Wise that insisted on changing the character’s gender. The film is also another feather in Wise’s directorial cap: he remains one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors ever, helming as disparate films as The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, The Haunting, The Sound of Music, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The Andromeda Strain, which posits itself as based on a true story (it isn’t), presents another strong variation in style.
When the team finally arrive at their state-of-the-art reseach facility, the entire film grinds to a halt. There are multiple underground levels, each of which boasts an increasingly rigorous sanitation procedure through which the scientists must pass. Each of them is played on screen in growing and tedious detail. It makes for interesting production design, but is staggeringly inert for a biological thriller. In all honesty, the film struggles to regain pace for another half-hour or so. The revelations on the virus – dubbed ‘the Andromeda strain’ by the team – make for good science fiction, but are perhaps less effective as drama. It all feels remarkable static, like a stage play. The film’s final act does up the tension and momentum, but sadly it is at the expense of the realism and becomes somewhat silly in the process.
It is ultimately a film of trade-offs: where it absolutely excels in science fiction concepts and executions, it fails in terms of human drama. The reverse is also true, leaving it as a solidly developed but ultimately uneven feature. It remains well worth watching, but the magical ‘classic’ status afforded to Wise’s other famous films is not quite earned.