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?
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.