Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Andromeda Strain

Another movie I finally got around to watching off my DVR is The Andromeda Strain. It's in print on DVD and Blu-ray, so I'm comfortable doing a full-length post on it even if it's not coming up on TV any time soon.

The movie starts off with a couple of Army guys being sent to a remote village in New Mexico to retrieve a satellite that's crash-landed back on Earth. As they approach the village, they get the distinct impression the village is eerily silent. Indeed, they find dead bodies on the ground, as though people just suddenly dropped dead where they stood. And unsurprisingly, they wind up dying themselves! Scary.

So the military calls in a team of medical experts they've got on retainer: Drs. Stone (Arthur Hill), Dutton (David Wayne), Hall (James Olson), and Leavitt (Kate Reid). They're all university research scientists at various prestigious universities, but the government needs them now, never mind what they'd rather be doing in life. The government agents impress upon them the need to come with them, and they're taken to an out-of-the-way facility in Nevada.

Looking like an agricultural research station, the facility is actually a cover for "Project Wildfire", which is actually housed in a deep underground facility beneath the cover. Wildfire is investigating the possibility of extraterrestrial biological threats to humanity, and it looks as though they have one now. It's up to the good doctors to figure out what's happened, and just as importantly how to stop it, before it can wip out humanity. Thankfully, there are two people who survived in that New Mexico village, a little baby and an alcoholic with an ulcer.

Our scientists get nice and decontaminated so they can investigate, and although there are some attitude disagreements above them, they generally work well together to try to solve the problem. But it's a really tough nut to crack, and one of them might just be missing something. And there's also the threat that the facility will get contaminated by the organism, necessitating its destruction, and the deaths of all within.

The Andromeda Strain is in some ways a standard-issue medical mystery drama, but it's still a damn good movie that rises above pretty much every other movie in the genre. I think that's in part down to the desire for realism instilled by Michael Crichton (who wrote the original novel) and director Robert Wise. Or, at least as much realism as is possible in a movie dealing with the possibility of an extraterrestrial organism that could destroy humanity. Everything looks terribly dated, but in a good way. It's not the silly "Hollywood looks at the future incorrectly" look you'll get in movies like Soylent Green (as good as such movies can be), but an accurate "these poor scientists had to deal with such primitive conditions" feel. The decontamination scene goes on and on, but that only serves to make us feel more uncomfortable about what the scientists are facing. The computer equipment is rudimentary, and we could all probably do more with our smartphones. But these scientists actually had to use their brains.

The movie is also greatly helped by having an ensemble cast instead of a bunch of stars (see The Swarm). David Wayne is probably the best known, having been a second-tier star at Fox in the 50s. But they work well together, and the scientific lack of egos definitely works to the movie's benefit.

If the movie does have any flaws, it might be the references to the government having done this deliberately -- that's not necessary to advance the plot -- as well as the climactic tension at the end of the movie which seems forced. But overall, The Andromeda Strain is a well-made, gradual movie that slowly builds up the suspense as it becomes one of the better sci-fi movies ever made. It's strongly worth a watch.

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