This week’s pick is The Andromeda Strain (1971) that was adapted from Michael Crichton’s best selling novel. Director Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still) brings this sci-fi thriller to the big screen.
A small group of scientists are brought together at the request of the U.S. government to investigate a crashed satellite that has killed the inhabitants of a small New Mexico town. It’s unclear as to the cause of death, but it is quickly discovered that the satellite, which returned to earth, managed to pick up an organism from space, which has proven fatal for the small town’s inhabitants.
The team of scientists is headed by doctor Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) who is the first to be called in by members of the U.S. Air Force and The White House. Stone understands the severity of the situation and wastes no time gathering the other three members of the team who will help to identify, isolate, and cure this new disease from space.
Dr. Stone and Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson) are dropped into the town of Piedmont, New Mexico by an Air Force Huey to discover just what kind of an organism killed the townspeople. Wise uses a unique sequence of POV shots as the two men look inside the windows of people’s homes in order to find signs of life.
Stone and Hall discover that the crashed satellite was taken to the office of a country doctor who foolishly opened the satellite and exposed the town to the germ. Hall uses a scalpel to get a sample of the doctor’s blood and discovers that the blood as been clotted and has turned into powder. With their oxygen running out and the threat of an Air Force jet vaporizing the town, Stone and Hall are about to evacuate when they hear the cries of a screaming baby and are puzzled to find out why he and an old man are the only two survivors. The two survivors are quickly airlifted out for immediate medical attention.
The last two members of the team are Dr. Charles Dutton (David Wayne) and Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid) who drive out to the middle of nowhere in the Nevada desert to the government’s super secret bio weapons lab known only as Wildfire. Wise shows the painstaking process of the scientists decent into the several story tall underground complex by having them become sterilized through radiation treatment, inoculations, and body scans. Each level of the facility is cleaner than the next and the reason behind this is to insure that the organism doesn’t become tainted by an Earth bacterium.
The film’s progression is quite good as the team works around the clock to discover just what it is? Is it a virus, a gas, or a bacterium that has never before been encountered? This was also the very first film to be monitored by the American Humane Association to insure that the test animals in the film weren’t harmed in any way.
One of my favorite parts of the film is when doctor Dutton and a lab assistant are trying to discover the size of the bug and whether or not it is transferred by air or physical contact. A filtration system is set up between two lab rats that are sharing the same air. When they discover that the bug is bigger than 2 microns in diameter, the lab assistant replies, “He must be pretty big. I’m gonna have to get me a fly swatter.”
As the Wildfire team race to find a cure, the government discovers a crashed jet fighter around the outskirts of the quarantined New Mexico town and it is later revealed that the bacteria codenamed Andromeda is mutating and will grow and further mutate if it is subjected to energy, like the energy of a nuclear explosion which Wildfire is equipped with a nuclear self-destruct mechanism in order to prevent the spread of contagious diseases.
My second favorite scene in the film is the discovery of the organism that is shown as a tiny indentation inside the scope recovery satellite. Both Stone and Leavitt notice these tiny patches of green and upon further magnification; discover that they have found the organism responsible for the deaths of those in Piedmont, New Mexico. The structure of the germ and its ability to survive in space w/o the normal earth checks and balances are very interesting and that it was no accident that the U.S. Government was looking for the ultimate biological weapon in The Andromeda Strain.
Many critics praised the film and said it was very faithful to the novel, while others bashed it due to the drowned-out plot of the film adaptation. The Wildfire set was actually one of the most expensive film sets ever constructed and was used for numerous television and movie shoots by Universal. Look for a cameo by a young Michael Crichton as an O.R. doctor in the background during a surgery being performed by Dr. Hall.
The Andromeda Strain is available on DVD thru Universal Home Video and can be streamed via Vudu.