The Andromeda Strain
Robert Wise’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s alien-invasion fantasy plays things entirely straight, which undoubtedly helps to sell its mile-high absurdities. But then, Crichton was a master of legitimising official science under the guise of airport fiction, boosted as his novels were by his authoritative status as qualified doctor. All that’s really proof of, of course, is that he’s able to parrot what he’s been taught. Which is very handy when you’re making a living from selling the excitingly plausible. The Andromeda Strain relates and celebrates the wonders of modern science with diligent, unquestioning, reverent awe, and Wise’s approach – faux-documentary, complete with underplaying, non-starry lead actors – serves to emphasise the strengths of the conceit. Make no mistake, though. This movie is about as realistic as Star Wars.
Doctor Jeremy Stone: Presumably, it could be some form of space germ.
Ostensibly, Crichton’s novels are frequently of the warning variety, but like any good predictive programming, they serve to normalise and licence ideas, theories and perspectives. It doesn’t matter if they’re true or not. He has thus taken in everything from transhumanism (The Terminal Man), to prehistoric life (Jurassic Park), to virus theory (The Andromeda Strain), to aliens (Sphere) to time-travel and the multiverse (Timeline), nanotech, genetic engineering and AI (Westworld, Prey) and virtual reality (Looker, Disclosure). Oh, and climate change (State of Fear, under the banner of global warming as it was then). Crichton was anti that one, however, so would that make his position one of controlled opposition? Some have pointed to his death within three years of it being published. Others have highlighted thematic consistency across his works, as the rules of civilisation and scientific order break down into chaos as man’s reach extends his grasp (AIs usurping their masters in Westworld, dinosaurs taking control of the park in Jurassic Park, and here, the contained virus slipping its rigorous, meticulously designed shackles).
Captain Morton: There’s a fire, sir.
Whether Harvard man Crichton was witting or unwitting, his prolific output and endorsement by Hollywood suggests he was tacitly approved, a go-to for big themes delivered to audiences in palatable fashion. If we stick to the reasonable assumption that he would not have been allowed to reach the fame he reached were he not endorsed, then we must assume his protestations and warnings were similarly gauged. They were, after all, contained in populist works that left worries at the door upon finishing the book or the movie.
Populist can often equate to mediocre, and I’d suggest, barring The Andromeda Strain – much of the effectiveness of which I might put at Robert Wise’s door – and perhaps The Terminal Man, Crichton’s movie output tended to the unremarkable. Indeed, his prolific-ness as a hot-topic magpie was much more impressive than his ability to do genuinely interesting things with those subjects. But then, the celebrated author – Dan Brown, Tom Clancy – is rarely about producing classics of the age. They’re about tapping into the zeitgeist, even if that zeitgeist may itself have been carefully configured to be seized upon by unsuspecting “trendsetters”.
Not everyone was keen on The Andromeda Strain. Wise already had one science-fiction classic under his belt – The Day the Earth Stood Still – and his next would be as different again and just as distinctive (Star Trek: The Motion Picture). I find his choices here truly interesting, even where they appear to go against good storytelling sense. Indeed, Pauline Kael tore the film’s approach a new one. Her criticisms are entirely valid, but for my part, I find these “issues” tend to add to The Andromeda Strain’s effectiveness.
She complained that “in one of the most preposterously ill-calculated pieces of movie-making yet, what seems like a full hour is spent on assembling and decontaminating the team of four scientists…” And this is true. I couldn’t help but notice. But I found it rather purposeful in terms of verisimilitude. And because it’s such an antithetical approach, given everything movie related these days is punchy or nothing, I was even rather impressed by the choice. A particularly dangerous one, since no one here is exactly brimming with charisma.
It’s probably Kate Reid’s Dr Leavitt who stands out most, curmudgeonly, chain smoking and acidic in humour (ironically, she was a late-stage gender switch up). Arthur Hill’s team leader Dr Stone is mostly an exposition machine, until he’s tarred with the amorality brush, while David Wayne’s Dr Dutton also dives into a fair bit of explanation as the more likeable elder of the group. That leaves “young” James Olson as Dr Hall, required to indulge the heroics during the tense climax thanks to his being the sole odd-man hypothesis candidate (that a single male can make more difficult decisions; I’m sure that would get Crichton roasted today, although such instincts seem like they’d make for a solid path to psychopathy, so one probably shouldn’t feel too hard done by).
Wise’s approach of determined underplaying scores because it underpins the idea that this is all real, per the opening titles: “This film concerns the four-day history of a major American scientific crisis” (although, setting the incident in 1971 and having the film open a month after events slightly undermines that conceit).
Doctor Jeremy Stone: In a vacuum, bombarded by electrons? It shouldn’t even be alive.
Kael’s complaints didn’t end there: “Worse, the movie… makes an almost unbelievably stupid dramatic mistake; The team turns out not to need to destroy the world… because the substance somehow disposes of itself”. That too is a fair point; and yet, in the flurry of the facility becoming a potential nuclear detonation site, it’s easy to dismiss it, because there’s still an effective and satisfying payoff to the scenario (and besides, all that time spent introducing us to the facility is really there to tell us that the facility itself is the danger). But yes, Andromeda’s mutation to a non-infectious form is very convenient and considerate. Crichton would doubtless argue it complies with accepted – Pasteur as opposed to Bechamp – virus lore. And besides, it isn’t as if he doesn’t have literary antecedents in adopting such a cop-out tack; War of the Worlds, after all, doesn’t require the defeat of the Martian threat. Just that they expose themselves to some pesky Earth germs. Yes, them again.
Doctor Jeremy Stone: Dividing and mutating at the same time?
Kael’s also on point when she observes that, after the tense study of the virus’ growth, “When the scientists examine it more closely and it becomes crystalline, or something, it’s a bore”. It’s true; we’re given a (Douglas Trumbull) light show, but it becomes an effect, not something to provoke an emotional response. Kael considers that “The fanatical realism of all that decontamination suggest nothing more than an obsession with cleanliness”. And yet, it’s grist to the mill of creating a palpable environment (as we know – or should – this obsession with cleanliness is founded on largely absurd logic, but within the parameters of the picture’s logic, it’s remarkably effective. Further, one only need look at the reactions of those most alarmed by invisible germs in the world around us to realise they’re living out their own private Andromeda Strain hells).
Crichton was inspired by Len Deighton’s The IPCRESS File – which produced a movie expressly spurning a documentary look – commenting that “a lot of Andromeda is traceable to Ipcress in terms of trying to create an imaginary world using recognisable techniques and real people”. It’s undoubtedly this “authenticity” that remains Andromeda’s biggest claim to fame. Indeed, it’s practically a compendium of the prevailing materialist western science paradigm, replete with all the ingredients that tell us just how our world – and worlds beyond – tick. In that sense, Crichton, who was conjectured not to be an atheist, represented a very good little soldier (until, perhaps, he didn’t, with the old climate-change bugbear).
Doctor Jeremy Stone: In a true biological crisis which our exploration of space could bring about, the present lunar laboratory might prove inadequate.
As if to nod to the picture’s being in cahoots – I mean, diligent to the facts – with the establishment, Cal Tech and the Jet Propulsion lab are thanked in the opening credits. NASA’s extraordinary, er, achievements are namechecked throughout, most especially in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory that Doctor Stone’s Wildfire proposal supplants (the LRL being a quarantine facility for astronauts “coming back” from missions and for “Moon” material; it’s scheduled to be demolished as it hasn’t been used in four years, which keeps the charade going, at any rate).
Doctor Charles Dutton: I suspect they were looking for the ultimate bioweapon.
Stone is presented as dedicated in his beliefs, but one might be closer to the truth of why NASA is so vital to the US Government infrastructure when it’s noted that his proposal for the facility represents “… Doctor Stone’s ninety-million dollar mash note to Uncle Sam”; if you have a “legitimate” objective for syphoning off funds, you can then pour them into whatever black ops suit you, DUMBs and beyond. Like Area 51, Wildfire facility is in an uninhabited region of the US (Nevada). It is also “equipped with a nuclear device” because preserving the ultimate fear factor is almost as key to maintaining the germ one, which if it doesn’t arise from Terra itself will surely finds its way down to us from space (transpermia).
Lieutenant Comroe: Your orders are, proceed to satellite and retrieve.
Vital as the skillsets of the scientists are, the nascent AI is also crucial to the facility, most notably in the form of body and medical data analysers that respectively diagnose and prescribe (naturally, “So far it’s only been used by NASA to diagnose astronauts in space”). It’s magic you see. And potentially dangerous (“This machine has a long memory”). As much as Crichton includes the line “Don’t encourage the President to think scientists are wizards, Jeremy” he knows that’s exactly what his profession does: elicit blind faith in knowledge and authority and the rest will follow suit.
Crichton legitimises the realm of invasive alien matter through presenting it in a “rational” manner (so basically the same as a ’50s B movie, but no bug-eyed monsters). Inevitably, it arrives on Earth via one of those satellites (they’re everywhere!) and it is posited that “Intelligent life may be no larger than a… bacterium”. This is reinforced by dream sequence footage of Doctor Rudolph Karp exclaiming “The fools! They refused to believe life exists in meteorites”. Certainly, the dangers of meteor-borne plagues are nothing new – fictionally, I mean – as illustrated by Lovecraft, but now we have a man of science setting out the minutiae of how they may get to us, dropping an entire town just like that, or eating up a pilot’s face mask (nothing could be worse than losing one’s extremely effective mask at an extremely vital moment. That’s why it’s always best to wear three at once).
Doctor Charles Dutton: The whole thing. What a world we are making…
As Kael noted, The Andromeda Strain’s treatment of infection and its potential hurdles is beyond diligent, which also makes it interesting for what it admits to. Essentially that, in terms of the beliefs it upholds (germ theory), it’s a lost cause. For a start, the facility requires sixteen hours to reach Level Five, where all the work needs to be done, making it highly inefficient in a state of potential global emergency.
This laboriousness is on account of the stringent decontamination and immunisation procedures, whereby “Each level is biomedically clearer than the one above”. How do they hope to achieve this pristine, germ-free human specimen? Well, through scanning techniques (for fungal lesions) and various means of killing all those nasties inhabiting us (xenon lamps). And suppositories (pesky GI tract, eh). Oh, and that old favourite, “pneumatic injects of booster immunisations”.
The objective: “On Level Five we must be as nearly germ free as possible”. This, despite admitting the thorny issue of “How to disinfect the human body, one of the dirtiest things in the known universe”. Well, dirty if you attack it from the position that all those “germs” are harmful, rather than vital. It’s a fairly short – and straight – line from the lab-centric thinking of Doctor Stone here to justifying the insane edicts currently broadcast across the four corners of the Earth. Oh, and while you’re about all that evacuation of vital bacteria, how about some nutrient 42-5 – developed for astronauts, natch – sure to be as good for you as only a synthetic foodstuff can?
Doctor Charles Dutton: The purpose of Scoop was to find new biological weapons in outer space and then use Wildfire to develop them.
It’s curious too – and a little superfluous, truth be told, as it appears as if by afterthought – that The Andromeda Strain also has room for conspiracy theory amidst all the devout scientific principles. Yes, a Biowar map is noted early on, so the idea is arguably seeded, but it’s late in the day that cynicism overwhelms our scientists.
Indeed, perhaps most interesting is the way Alien closely matches The Andromeda Strain: alien lifeform of unknown properties but potentially deadly to all the non-descript humans present is let loose in an isolated area – blue collar or white collar is incidental – which eventually leads to the triggering of the self-destruct of this enclosed space. And along the way, it’s discovered that this alien presence is at the behest of the government/the Company who wish to see if it’s a good fit for their bioweapons division (“Wildfire was built for germ warfare”).
One might argue there are only so many stories, and certainly, The Andromeda Strain’s roots lie in the sci-fi monster movies Alien would reinvent, but one has to wonder if Dan O’Bannon didn’t assimilate The Andromeda Strain as his idea for The Star Beast developed. Even Stone’s “Andromeda’s perfect for existence in outer space. Consumes everything. Wastes nothing” sounds perilously close to Ash eulogising the xenomorph.
Doctor Mark Hall: I never went in much for science fiction.
The Andromeda Strain is the perfect movie for the modern paradigm, since it serves up the gloss of every scientific fact as the foundation for its serious SF exploration. I’d reiterate that Wise is the real star here, not Crichton (Crichton’s later Westworld is an efficiently lean construction, but it’s subsequently clear that he was not a great director, and as a writer, his work’s only as good as whoever is calling the shots).
He creates a tense, serious – over-serious even – atmosphere that pays off in proving completely gripping when the situation begins to spiral out of control; I always found the pilot’s disintegrating mask as unnerving as anything going on in the base, with its ominously growing sample. I haven’t seen the Sir Ridders-produced TV show from 2008, and I know not of the cash-in The Andromeda Evolution sequel from 2019. The key to this film’s success, though, is Wise making the science convincing. It’s thus the kind of work that proves highly influential in pulling the wool over swathes of unsuspecting eyes in the outside world.