The Andromeda Strain (1971) ***½
Believe it or not, there really was a time when the words, “Based on a novel by Michael Crichton” in the opening credits were not the kiss of death for a science fiction movie. Admittedly, this is a rather difficult proposition to swallow, what with Congo, Sphere, and the ongoing exercise in diminishing returns that is the Jurassic Park series, but back in the 70’s, Crichton was the shit, and his name on a movie was actually something close to a guarantee of an exceptionally engaging, intelligent sci-fi experience. The Andromeda Strain was one of Crichton’s best novels, and the movie adapted from it by screenwriter Nelson Gidding and director Robert Wise is one of the more impressive science fiction films of its decade, even if it does seem just a little bit dated today.
A pair of military types are cruising around the desert near the dinky, isolated hamlet of Piedmont, New Mexico (population 68), searching for something related to “Project Scoop.” Scoop is evidently some kind of space-related operation, because the two G-men keep talking about a landing site, which they eventually conclude is somewhere within the town. Once inside Piedmont, however, the men discover that the official tally of the town’s population is going to have to be revised downward rather drastically. In fact, it looks as though just about everyone there is dead. No, wait— there’s one survivor after all, and he’s not a bit happy to have guests...
The folks in charge of Project Scoop are at Vandenberg Air Force Base, listening in on the radio when their men in the field are killed, and immediately, the word goes out that there is a “wildfire” in New Mexico. Soon, armed secret service agents are showing up to bother scientists all around the country, insisting that they drop whatever it is they’re doing and come along with them. Four doctors and researchers are eventually rounded up in this way: Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill, from Revenge of the Stepford Wives and Something Wicked This Way Comes), Dr. Charles Dutton (David Wayne, from the mostly forgotten 1951 remake of M), Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Death Ship’s Kate Reid, who would find herself confronting a very similar menace in the made-for-TV Plague), and Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson, from Moon Zero Two and Amityville II: The Possession). Of the four scientists, Dr. Stone has the clearest idea what’s going on; at the other extreme, Dr. Hall hasn’t the faintest clue. It’s his own damn fault, though— if he’d read those official-looking packets he’d received in the mail a few months ago, he’d be at least as well informed as Dutton and Leavitt. As for the latter two scientists, they know just enough about what they’re being called upon to do to be intensely suspicious of their leader, Dr. Stone, and the military men who seem to be pulling his willing strings.
The first thing Stone does upon reaching Piedmont with Hall (Dutton and Leavitt are to meet them at the headquarters of Project Wildfire later) is to drop a bunch of poison gas grenades from the windows of the helicopter taking them there. The gas is for the vultures— Piedmont looks to have been wiped out by disease, and Stone doesn’t want the vultures who have been feasting on the dead citizens’ flesh to carry any pathogens out of town. The doctors’ initial sweep of the town leads them to conclude that death was instantaneous in the case of most of the victims, but at least a few people had time to kill themselves before the infection could get to them. The symptoms are certainly alarming— the victims’ blood has been coagulated so completely that it has turned literally to powder in their veins, and seems to have done so in a matter of moments. But the strangest thing of all is that there are two people in town who are still alive: the old man who attacked the soldiers earlier (George Mitchell, from House of the Black Death and Attack of the Mayan Mummy) and a baby boy. Stone and Hall pack up the two survivors, and fly over to Wildfire Central; along the way, Stone places a call to Washington to request that the president issue a “Directive 712” for Piedmont. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I like the sound of that.
Once the team has assembled at Wildfire, The Andromeda Strain turns into something very much like a detective story. After a somewhat awkward heap of exposition detailing the design, function, and history of the Wildfire installation (the five circular, subterranean levels arranged around a central shaft, each one more rigorously sterile than the one above; the nuclear detonator set to destroy the base automatically in the event that it should be contaminated by whatever killed the people of Piedmont; Dr. Stone’s role in getting Wildfire constructed in order to deal with the situation should one of NASA’s spacecraft accidentally bring home any pathogenic hitchhikers), the movie’s central concern is the efforts of the four scientists to isolate, identify, and find a way to neutralize the organism responsible for the Piedmont plague. Meanwhile, Major Arthur Mancheck (Ramon Bieri), Stone’s principal Pentagon contact, will busy himself investigating hints that the Andromeda Strain (as Wildfire’s pencil-pushers dub the organism) has spread beyond the Piedmont area in spite of all Stone’s precautions.
The neat thing about The Andromeda Strain is that it is probably the only movie I’ve ever seen that makes even the most cursory effort to portray the nuts and bolts of scientific investigation in an authentic manner. More remarkable still is Robert Wise’s success in keeping the movie exciting even though Nelson Gidding’s screenplay never flinches from depicting the sheer, mind-numbing tedium of hands-on science. Whatever the discipline’s attractions from an intellectual and theoretical perspective, day-to-day science is awfully fucking boring (reason number one why I’m thankful for my helplessness in the face of higher mathematics— had I survived college calculus, I’d probably be a disgruntled entomologist today), and I’m in awe of Wise for finding a way to put that across without having it infect the rest of the movie. I’m also pleased to see a sci-fi movie made before the mid-1990’s that features a female scientist who is not boxed in and compressed down to the role of The Chick. Nobody ever calls Ruth Leavitt “a good little scientist,” asks her to make them coffee, or suggests that she be spared some unpleasantness or other on the grounds that it’s “no job for a woman.” This is doubly significant here, because in Crichton’s novel, Dr. Leavitt is a man. That is to say, Gidding reworked the story to make Leavitt female, and yet never once makes an issue of her sex!
There is one other major change from the novel, and this one doesn’t sit as well with me. It is eventually implied that the Scoop satellite did not bring the Andromeda Strain to Earth by accident, and indeed that to collect the extraterrestrial microorganism was the entire point of the project. The reason? The Pentagon wanted to develop it into an unstoppable bioweapon, of course. Admittedly, in 1971, this plot device was not yet the eyeball-rolling cliche that it has become since the mid-1980’s, and in that especially paranoid year, there would have been a certain logic to that now contemptibly familiar twist on the story, but I still found it impossible to suppress a groan when the more left-leaning scientists (that is to say, everybody but Stone) turned up the incriminating evidence. Not enough to hurt my appreciation of the movie, sure, but a small disappointment nevertheless.