The Andromeda Strain
directed by Robert Wise
starring James Olson, David Wayne, Kate Reid
Once the standard bearer for literate, hard science fiction movies, Robert Wise’s 1971 thriller The Andromeda Strain over the decades has been curiously neglected and nearly forgotten. Despite the pedigree of Oscar winning director Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, The Day the Earth Stood Still) and publishing & film cash cow Michael Crichton The Andromeda Strain never achieved movie classic status. The film was for years a stalwart as a second feature at drive in and a staple of Sunday afternoon television, but once Star Wars hit cinemas in 1977 The Andromeda Strain became “boring” and it faded from consciousness, despite being the beginning of the contagion film sub-genre, and being highly influential both in terms of story and production design. The name became a kind of shorthand for slow, deliberate, science fiction and there was a 2008 tv mini-series, but the film became a relic, unknown by most yet measured by the faithful. Arrow Video has created a new Blu-Ray of The Andromeda Strain that will hopefully reveal the film to a new generation.
The film is extremely basic in terms of plot. A satellite returns to Earth and crashes into the desert. When the government arrives to collect the pieces they find the town of Piedmont, New Mexico, almost devoid of life, save for a colicky baby and the town drunk. The satellite contains a virus from space and the military mobilizes a crack team of scientists to convene at Project Wildfire, an underground laboratory complex to study the new form of life. The conscripted scientists, Drs Hall, Stone, Leavitt, and Dutton, are not used to the regimentation of a military facility, nor overjoyed at being uprooted from their lives to be sent several stories underground. These aren’t the lantern jawed hero scientist of the 1950s nor the near deities of modern science fiction. These are working class scientists, middle age, grumpy, and sarcastic. Just to add to the stress the team is informed that Wildfire is rigged with an atomic self destruct system in case the contagion breaks containment. The lone single male on the team, Dr. Hall is appointed the Odd-Man and given the sole override key. He is chosen because as an unmarried man he is statistically the best choice to carry out the job. After a few days of experimentation they indeed discover how to contain the extra-terrestrial, but not before it breaks its containment and it becomes a race against time and Wildfire’s defense system to stop the lab’s destruction and neutralize the alien threat.
With a film driven so much by people talking creative, dramatic camera angles and structural editing are a must to keep visual interest. Nelson Giddings’ script, based on the Michael Crichton novel is more about the process of uncovering the mysteries of the life form dubbed Andromeda. This dedication to the method helps bolster the veracity of the science part of the science fiction. Ultimately the real star is the amazing production design by Boris Leven and visual effects by Douglas Trumbull that includes the sleek, curvy, color coded levels of Wildfire which requires the crew to wear color coordinating jumpsuits. The film feels completely grounded in reality while also having classic sci-fi aesthetic. Arrow’s Blu-Ray transfer, made from the camera negative is impeccably clean and the colors burst off the screen.
In typical Arrow Video fashion, The Andromeda Strain is jammed with engaging extras. Pop culture journalist Bryan Reesman provides feature commentary discusses Robert Wise’s use of unusual film making techniques including split screen, still images, and split diopter filter on the film. He also goes into how they made a white rat and Rhesus monkey pass out on camera. Critic, historian, and author Kim Newman pops up in A New Strain of Science Fiction where he discusses The Andromeda Strain and it’s influence on creating its own sub-genre of plague movies. There are older interviews and featurettes carried over from a 2001 release of the film. The most curious extra is the film’s “Cinescript” which is a PDF of the script illustrated with production art and annotations.
Arrow Video’s upgrade of The Andromeda Strain is a major upgrade from any previous version and is packed with value added extras and is a treasure for fans of the film and a gorgeous introduction to the uninitiated.