The Disaster Blogathon: The Andromeda Strain (1971)

This post is part of the Disaster Blogathon, hosted by The Midnite Drive-In and Dubism. See a list of the other apocalyptic posts HERE!

When this blogathon was first announced, it was March 2020 and seemed like the Covid-19 pandemic would probably be over by the time the blogathon took place. Why not cover a movie about a potential deadly pandemic?

Ha…ha…ha.

It’s June 2020 at this writing and no end in sight. So it was with trepidation that I rewatched the 1971 film adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain.

I saw this film when it was first released, with a bunch of friends of mine who were parked at the movie theater by one of our mothers who wanted to do some shopping. It was showing on a double bill with a Western. My friends and I hated the Western (even I, the lover of Westerns, did not like it). We loved this movie.

How does it hold up almost 50 years later?

Not bad at all.

Reading recent reviews of the film, there is a lot of complaining that it is slow paced by today’s standards. That’s not an unfair comment. Except for a race to stop the disease from escaping into the general population during the final third of the film, it’s pretty slow moving for a thriller.

If you go into this understanding it’s more hard sci fi than action sci fi, however, there is much to appreciate here.

The film opens on a military mission to retrieve a satellite that has crashed to Earth. When the two soldiers approach the town of Piedmont, New Mexico, they realize everyone in town is dead. The soldiers themselves die almost instantly when they breathe the air.

The government yanks four scientists out of their normal lives and takes them to an underground facility to learn what killed the townsfolk and how to stop it from getting out in the general population. They are Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hiller), Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson), Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid), and Dr. Charles Dutton (David Wayne).

Hall is designated to keep the key that stops detonation of an atomic bomb that would destroy the laboratory in case of contamination because he is male and single. (This was the 70s, remember.) Hall and Stone go to the town in hazmat suits and find two survivors: an old man (George Mitchell) and a baby. The quartet of scientists must find out why they survived when the others did not.

One of the modern criticisms of the film is that it takes too long showing the process of decontamination as they descend the five levels, but I find it interesting. How the characters deal with it reveals certain things about them. This isn’t what you would call a deep character study. This is a film about the science, though one carried out by four virtual strangers who have a very short amount of time to develop into a team.

Another is that the technology looks positively quaint, but compared to other sci fi movies of the era the sets and machinery seem thoughtfully put together. An interesting technique director Robert Wise uses is to show more than one shot on the screen in boxes.

One change from the novel to the film is that Leavitt is a woman instead of a man. Leavitt is certainly the most interesting of the lightly sketched characters (you can tell she’s just about had it with everything, probably because women are treated horribly in her profession). She’s also more complex, hiding a medical condition that could jeopardize the mission. Paula Kelly plays Karen Anson, a nurse who is also more interesting than the male characters, a refreshing change from most sci fi movies.

Since this was made in the 70s, there is a dollop of governmental conspiracy thrown in as well. An unseen president makes decisions based on politics rather than science, and where have we seen that lately?

Like many sci fi disaster movies, the solution is a bit easy and pat, which may be why so many of us thought the pandemic we’re living through now would be resolved a lot sooner.

If the science part of sci fi is what you like about the genre, you’d do well to give this film a try. But maybe wait until this pandemic is over.

10 thoughts on “The Disaster Blogathon: The Andromeda Strain (1971)

  1. Slow? Yes. Interesting? Also yes. I like Robert Wise’s style. I also like that stars Arthur Hill and Kate Reid are fellow Canucks. I also like your choice for the blogathon. It is pretty hard to ignore our reality and why not examine how those in the past, fact, and fiction, dealt with such a situation.

    1. Good film but I too found it a little slow. Will watch it again, probably once we get past the current pandemic! Hopefully that will be soon! Stay safe and watch lots of movies!

  2. I’ve never found the found this film to be slow, but I can see some raised on faster paced (and less science-friendly) action flicks not being into the documentary style Wise presents here. Then again, I read through the book in a single day because as a 10 or so year old, it was hard to put down. I really saw this as a suspense thriller with a science fiction vibe and it’s a film I’ve always appreciated for taking its time in drawing out the mystery. Yes, even though that ending seems a bit too pat, as you noted.

  3. I agree with your interpretation of character development. The author, Michael Crichton, never really was great at character development, in my opinion, but he did have some pretty good hard science knowledge that made for extremely interesting novels, at least from the story side of it.

  4. I think a lot of the “today” criticism of this movie comes from a complete inability some people have to keep in consideration a) when it was made and/or b) when it is set. If you can’t do that, you can’t appreciate a movie for what it is; instead you’ll always looking at it in terms of what you want it to be.

  5. I’ve never seen this film, but I did read the book some years ago. It’s good to know this film still holds up years later. I’ll give this film a go…but I’ll take your advice and wait until the pandemic is over.

  6. I like this film, for years I was intrigued by the so-called Single Man Theory and did some research: It was made up for the novel as a way for government to keep nuclear decisions in civilian hands and out of military protocol.

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