Tuesday 30 November 2021

Movie Review: The Andromeda Strain (1971)

A science-based drama with thriller elements, The Andromeda Strain joins scientists conducting frantic research in response to a tiny foreign organism threatening humanity with annihilation.

A military satellite falls on the small community of Piedmont, New Mexico. A recovery team in hazard suits enters the town to recover the satellite, and finds all the residents dead, except for an old man and a six month old baby. They are transferred to the top secret Wildfire laboratory built in the Nevada desert to research organisms from space. Wildfire is also equipped with an automatic nuclear self-destruct mechanism.

The elite team of scientists tasked with understanding the threat is led by Dr. Stone (Arthur Hill), and includes Dr. Hall (James Olson), Dr. Leavitt (Kate Reid) and Dr. Dutton (David Wayne). After undergoing an extensive decontamination process, they use advanced medical and computer technology to try and determine why the old man and the baby survived. The doctors also find the alien matter attached to the satellite and attempt to analyze its composition.

Faithfully based on the Michael Crichton novel with a screenplay by Nelson Gidding, The Andromeda Strain is a serious portrayal of science at work to counter a real-time existential crisis. Carrying echoes of sterility from 2001: A Space Odyssey but without the imagination nor the profundity, here director Robert Wise focuses on the humourless and colourless analysis required to solve an extraterrestrial mystery.

The pacing, compositions, and characters are purposefully methodical, and the deliberate sequential steps supporting defensible conclusions trump cinematic entertainment. To keep the emphasis on science, the characters are intentionally grey, and the cast is under-powered. Kate Reid's Dr. Leavitt is infused with some spirit and foibles, but the scientists are otherwise largely interchangeable, work-obsessed, and devoid of meaningful backstories, drama, or conflicts.

After a quizzically engaging opening act to set the stage and collect the team at the Wildfire facility, the energy level stalls. The urgency of the response is parked and replaced by a laborious sequence of decontamination, the hours it takes for skin and cavities to undergo a deep cleansing replicated in what feels like real time. While perhaps offering joy for mysophobes, the scenes are an absolute momentum killer. 

The final act is also deeply flawed. A rush of mishaps and revelations barge into the narrative, leaving the conclusions a jumbled mess. What was urgent and deadly is suddenly not so urgent and not so deadly, and cheap thrills with scientists as action heroes are introduced to deal with a doomsday countdown loudly telegraphed an hour earlier.

The better segments offer a fascinating look into the world of wondrous computer-aided medical research technology, brought to life by Douglas Trumbull and his special effects team. The Andromeda Strain struggles to find passion in science-under-pressure, but does impress with technogeekery.

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