Robert Wise, “The Andromeda Strain” (1971)
Although made over 45 years ago, this science fiction film about a team of scientists battling to identify and contain an extraterrestrial microscopic life-form before it brings death and destruction across Earth can still teach modern movie-makers a lesson or two (or even more) about how to draw out drama, tension and pace from situations and the clash of characters and personalities without resorting to contrived or stereotyped plots, sub-plots, or character types. There are no preachy messages or big-name actors playing themselves in roles tailored to their limitations. While there’s a huge emphasis on special effects and modern technology, these aspects are appropriate and subordinate to the narrative. The minimalist style of the film throws viewer attention onto the plot and its cast of characters. The plot may be mundane but the care given to plot details and how a group of people with particular personality quirks and weaknesses work together in a situation they cannot control and which quickly becomes urgent and life-threatening flesh out the thin plot and manage to make it absorbing. The film’s ultimate message – that humans have less control over nature and the Earth’s systems than they realise – is very humbling indeed.
A satellite crashes to Earth near a small town in Arizona and the town inhabitants promptly drop dead from a mysterious disease that turns their blood into powder. Only a drunken old man and a bawling baby survive the infection. The two are brought to a secret underground laboratory called Wildfire where a team of four scientists drawn from different scientific and medical disciplines study them and the remains of the satellite to learn more about the xeno-organism. The scientists themselves have undergone an elaborate series of decontamination procedures through four floor levels to reach the fifth and lowest level where the actual laboratory is located. This level also contains an automatic nuclear-powered self-destruction mechanism to stop all infectious organisms from escaping. One of the four scientists, Dr Mark Hall (James Olson), is given the key to turn off this mechanism.
The scientists identify the xeno-organism, which they dub the Andromeda strain, and discover its unique properties that enable it to grow and mutate rapidly. The xeno-organism quickly changes into a form that eats through the laboratory’s plastic and rubber seals, setting off the facility’s self-destruction mechanism. Dr Hall has only minutes to turn off the mechanism when the scientists realise that the organism can absorb the energy of a nuclear explosion and turn into a super-colony that might wipe out all life on Earth.
Some of the hard science and medicine can be implausible and if the original novel were to be written now rather than nearly 50 years ago, its writer Michael Crichton (of “Jurassic Park” fame) would incorporate current scientific and medical advances to make the novel more realistic: for example, the baby and the old man’s survival would now be attributed to their having vulnerable or weakened immune systems that did not over-react to the organism. This reasoning would be consistent with the hidden message in the film which is that the elaborate procedures that safeguard the people working in Wildfire from virulent microorganisms turn out to be their potential doom when an alien organism escapes their control. Wherever possible, computer and other technologies in the film are used to their utmost potentials: computers are not just used to crunch out data and statistics, they are also incorporated in scientific analysis and to describe (in text and animations) the nature of the alien organism under study.
The cast of actors is credible in the level of restraint they exercise and in the way they flesh out their characters. All the scientists are ordinary people with easily bruised egos, prejudices and weaknesses which they try to hide. One of the scientists, the cantankerous Dr Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid), has an epilepsy problem which threatens the safety of the Wildfire laboratory when she experiences an epileptic fit caused by flashing red lights while performing an experiment on the alien organism. Dr Mark Hall displays quiet and unexpected heroism in his quest to shut down the self-destruct mechanism in spite of tremendous obstacles in his path from the fifth level to the third level of Wildfire.
At one point in the film, Leavitt and fellow scientist Dr Charles Dutton (David Wayne) accuse team leader Dr Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) of wanting to use the team’s findings about the Andromeda strain to develop bio-weapons. Indeed, the whole Wildfire laboratory itself seems to be under the control of the US military which says something profound about how the United States perceives its role in guarding or protecting Earth from possible alien contact: aliens are to be regarded as potentially threatening rather than as possible partners in exploring and understanding space, and perhaps understanding our place and purpose in the universe.
The film is noteworthy for its restrained use of special effects that emphasise the virulent nature of the alien organism and how colour is used to define the different levels of the Wildfire laboratory. Special mention should be made of the use of an electronic avant-garde music soundtrack to emphasise the film’s technical approach to its plot and themes. Funnily, while much of the film is drawn out and devoted to detailing the elaborate procedures the scientists follow to observe the laboratory’s hermetic nature and in the way they conduct their experiments, the way in which the alien pathogen is brought under control seems hastily written and not very well explained.
Even though the technology featured in the film looks very antiquated, the film itself has not dated a great deal and much of it – and the attitudes expressed towards the alien organism – still remain relevant. Microorganisms from outer space are still to be regarded with horror and dread, to be held at bay or wiped out altogether, rather than as life-forms that could enrich Earth’s ecosystems.