This virus will kill you in minutes, but the terror will stick with you for years!
The Andromeda Strain was the first film adapted from a Michael Crichton work, and still stands tall as a perfect example of biological outbreak film.
A classic plot for sci-fi films involves man-made terrors being unleashed into the world. The trailer for The Andromeda Strain shows a new fear in the late 20th Century, contagion. It sets up a super-virus that is getting out of hand and threatens the stars of the film, if not the world. The trailer also does several things that seem strange today. It introduces the director, Robert Wise, to speak on the picture, briefly. It touts the runtime at over 100 minutes (as if a longer film equates with a superior product), and promises that the “suspense will last through your lifetime!” It does make sure to mention, several times, that the film is based on the best selling Michael Crichton novel, as well as show some intense looking scenes. Bio-weapons are still a concern today, so let’s see how well this film holds up!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
The film takes place over four distinct days, separated by title cards. Introductory title cards thank various government agencies including Wildfire Laboratory for their cooperation in making an accurate depiction of this four-day event. On the first day, two army soldiers enter the quiet town of Piedmont, New Mexico to retrieve a crashed satellite codenamed Scoop-7. They discover multiple dead bodies. Reporting back to headquarters they encounter something horrific, but the sequence is told from the standpoint of the officer on duty over the radio, and the audience never sees what happens.
Vandenberg Air Force Base puts out an alert that there has “been a fire,” and four civilian scientists are collected to help. Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) is collected by an armed military escort from a dinner party he and his wife are throwing. Of all the people collected, he seems to understand what this is regarding. Next is Dr. Charles Dutton (David Wayne), an older scientist, whose wife thinks he’s going to a love in, and whose grandson is concerned about the “man with the gun.” Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid) is in no hurry to go with the aggressive soldiers, especially when she’s in the middle of her experiments. And finally Dr. Mark Hall (James Olsen), a surgeon, is just about to cut open a patient when he is called away.
The second day opens with Stone and Hall arriving in Piedmont by helicopter. They are in full hazmat suits and investigate dead people in the town, realizing that the blood in the corpses has coagulated and turned to dust, dropping them “in mid-stride.” They find two survivors, a 6-month old baby and an older man. Meanwhile, Dutton and Leavitt arrive at the Wildfire Laboratory, which is disguised as a US Agricultural Station in the middle of the Nevada desert–112 miles from anywhere else. Stone and Hall join them as they get an introduction to the five-level bio-secure facility. It will take them 16 hours to get make their way through the color-coded levels to Level 5 where the labs and samples are being stored.
On the third day they continue through the decontamination procedures, which includes having a xenon lamp burn away body hair and the outer layer of epithelial tissue. The four scientists test the lethality of the area around the satellite by exposing a rat and a monkey to the sample. They both die within a matter of seconds. Hall goes off to examine the patients, Mr. Jackson (George Mitchell) and the infant, with his assistant Karen Anson (Paula Kelly), while Dutton tries to figure out the infection vector and the size of the virus.
Leavitt and Stone use a series of ever increasing magnification lenses to examine the Scoop satellite for signs of the virus, or whatever it may be. They discover a small grain of black sand covered with a green slime which appears to be an alien organism which produces the infection and death in those exposed, dubbed Andromeda. They realize it’s growing and is made up of a crystalline structure, heretofore unseen by mankind. Elsewhere, the President has put a delay on the nuclear strike of Piedmont (which was called to eradicate all possibilities of an outbreak), while a fighter jet crashes near the town after all the plastic-like components of the plane dissolved.
On the fourth and final day, the team is tired. They discover that the Code 7-12 eradication of Piedmont hasn’t been completed, but missed earlier notifications due to a mechanical failure in their teletype machine. It’s fortunate since they soon discover that a blast of radiation from a bomb would cause the virus to bloom and spread further and faster. The alien organism continues to mutate, destroying the plastic-like polycron seals in Wildfire, setting off the 5-minute nuclear self-destruct containment protocol. Hall, who is the only one with the shutoff key must climb through the central core, protected by gas and lasers, to another floor to shut off the explosion–which he does with only eight seconds to spare.
Realizing that the virus can only kill humans within a very narrow range of blood pH–the old man’s blood was too basic from drinking Sterno and the infant’s too acidic from crying constantly–they now know how to defeat it. The mutated virus cloud is blown out over the Pacific where they seed clouds in order to wash the virus into the alkaline seawater. Stone is shown testifying to a Senate subcommittee about the biological outbreak, and asked about the next time they encounter something like this. He asks “what do we do,” echoing the Senator’s concerns. The final shot is of a previously seen computer simulation of the growth of Andromeda ending in a computer crash, error 601: a computer overloaded of data as Andromeda continues to divide and mutate at the same time.
“We have the organism at Wildfire, and we continue to study it. We know now beyond a doubt that other forms of life exist in the universe.” – Dr. Stone
History in the Making
Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain was the first sci-fi film about the realities and dangers of a viral outbreak threatening to consume society. Certainly the 1964 film The Last Man on Earth had some of the trappings of the post-apocalyptic aspects of a viral outbreak, but it was more a film about survival in the world created by such an outbreak. The Andromeda Strain presents a pseudo-documentary about the moment-to-moment decisions that go into preventing the eradication of all life on the planet.
Staring with the credits to the film, Andromeda creates a mix of fictional and non-fictional storytelling. As the film starts, title cards thank the government and the scientists at the Wildfire Labs for their cooperation in making this film. Of course no such agencies existed at the time. These were fictional elements presented as real to sell the drama in the film. Then the title credits, showing the list of actors and technicians of the film, are overlaid on samples of Top Secret documents about Scoop-7, Wildfire Labs and the viral outbreak; again blurring the line between film and reality. The Andromeda Strain appears to be another early 70s film invoking the styles of documentary filmmaking. Other examples reviewed on Sci-Fi Saturdays include 2001: A Space Odyssey (actually from the late 60s), Colossus: The Forbin Project and the uber-dystopian THX 1138. The tone of the film, which is efficient and scientific, comes straight from the source material, but Wise’s filming style fits in with other films of the era. These movies tried to evoke a more realistic-style of cinematography in an attempt to draw the audience into their films. This was not just science-fiction, but in horror, crime dramas, and even comedies of the day.
Wise also used a number of technical effects to heighten the narrative. First was his use of split-screen effects which enabled him to deliver more information than a single shot could. This effect is when the projected film frame is divided up into two or more compartments, each showing their own footage. It’s something that is common in film language today, but was a relatively new and avant garde style in 1971. Films had used a standard split frame before to show, as an example, two characters on the phone, but Wise’s techniques would include both the shot and the reaction shot. For example, as Hall is investigating the derelict town one compartment shows his actions in an uncut shot, while other frames pop into view showing the dead people he is seeing. Additionally the example screenshot shown below provides another example of a triptych by which both sides of the conversation are shown at the same time, all while a third piece of information (the movement of the characters through the environment) is shown in the middle of the frame..
Wise also used a piece of camera technology called a diopter. This is a special lens for the film camera that allows for two focal planes to be set at the same time; one near and one far. The effect makes it appear that multiple characters are in focus at the same time, and therefore in-touch with each other. This is an effect that is unable to be achieved with a traditional lens. Oftentimes the diopter is used for narrative and aesthetic reasons, but it can also overcome a purely technical problem, such as the lack of light in a location to maintain a single plane of focus over distance. The tell-tale sign of the use of this technology is a blurred line bisecting the frame, which is often subtle and sometimes hidden in a non-intrusive area.
The Andromeda Strain was the first major film showcasing the outbreak of a potentially catastrophic disease. Other films such as The Last Man On Earth or Night of the Living Dead had global outbreaks prior to the events of the film. While Living Dead has one (at least one) backstory involving a crashed NASA satellite, Last Man was purely humans messing around with things they didn’t understand. Both of these examples were inspired or based on the Richard Mattheson novel “I Am Legend,” which will be looked at in more detail when Sci-Fi Saturdays looks at The Omega Man. But again, these films only looked at life after the viral apocalypse. The Andromeda Strain is the potential apocalypse unfolding in front of the audiences eyes.
Numerous films, such as Warning Sign (1985), The Hot Zone (2019), and Outbreak (1995), tell the stories of the release or potential release of dangerous pathogens into society all potentially inspired by the events of The Andromeda Strain. This film, however, follows the moments, from the discovery of the outbreak to the potential cure, in excruciating detail yielding a tense and exciting film. While created as a work of fiction, the story unfolds in a very realistic way using much actual science, and exams the ethics of the science–which began to be a trend in the early 1970s.
While the plot of The Andromeda Strain follows the four days during this “event” the filmmakers added in some additional storylines that were only hinted at. The biggest one is the idea that Scoop and Wildfire were created to do exactly what is being shown in the film, collect and contain an extraterrestrial biological entity, or EBE. Dutton makes the claim on the 3rd day that the government and the military were actually on the lookout for biological weapons; a theme that would permeate sci-fi and horror films for decades to come.
The Andromeda Strain, along with Colossus: The Forbin Project began a long line of films that dealt with unethical and out of control military and government factions looking to win the arms race, or the Cold War, by creating technology that in the wrong hands could be deadly. Films like Aliens (with the “company” seeking out the xenomorph as a biological weapon), Capricorn One (which shows the government faking a Martian landing as they attempt to assassinate the astronauts which took part), and the ultimate take on the control of the government, Escape From New York (where the island of Manhattan is turned into a prison and only Kurt Russell can survive it’s perils).
Unfortunately the claims that Dutton makes are not explored in large detail. It’s a side-trip the film chooses not to make, with the audience potentially left wondering if he’s correct or if it’s just the ravings of a tired, old man. However there is some evidence that even with the ending of the film, where the threat of Andromeda is stopped just in time as it mutates into something harmless and then swept out to sea to be destroyed, might be in contention. The final shot of the film appears to be another computer simulation of the mutation and growth of the Andromeda cells as seen earlier in the film. The film ends with the computer error 601 flashing on the screen, which indicates the computer has run out of memory and cannot compute the next metamorphosis. “Life finds a way,” so the humans who think they are in control may not be, as Michael Crichton would say in another film about the hubris of man, Jurassic Park. Whether that is to indicate that the Andromeda cells swept over the ocean are not being destroyed as planned due to mutation, or that Stone still has samples at the Wildfire Lab that may be turning into something not as easy to control, is up to the audience to decide. The film, as much of Crichton’s work seems to indicate that man cannot ever control the things that he creates, no matter how many safeguards are put in place.
The Science in The Fiction
Crichton had a background in medicine and science, having spent a short time in the field before leaving to pursue a career in writing. He made it through Harvard Medical School only to leave one year into his post-graduate work. “The Andromeda Strain”, released in 1969, was his first published work, and a successful best-seller that would go on to cement him as the leading writer of techno/scientific thrillers–mostly sci-fi–but always with a healthy dose of realism and factuality.
At the time, The Andromeda Strain was the most scientifically accurate film created about viruses and outbreaks. The depiction of the complex, multi-level facility that restricts movements and uses various processes to slowly rid the human body of germs and contagions accurately details the process by which a hygienic facility would operate. Maybe the addition of the gas and lasers in the central core, to prevent lab animals from escaping and infecting other areas, is a bit science-fictiony but other measures, such as the bomb to be used in case of a breach in quarantine is similar in concept (but probably not practice) to real-world deterrents.
The things that The Andromeda Strain does best, even for viewers unfamiliar with biological vectors of infection, is set up a plausible series of events that could lead to the premise seen in the film. The reality of the situation is probably 80-90% of the film with the last 10-20% being science-fiction dreamed up by the author and filmmakers. It’s hard to tell, for the average viewer, where reality ends and the fiction starts. There’s just enough doubt to fuel a sense of fear and paranoia in the hopes that the viewer will never encounter such a risk.
It also creates an accurate portrayal of the scientific method. Dr. Hall attempts to figure out what caused the infant and the old man to survive the outbreak. His investigations yield that it must be something about their blood, and the pH (the acidity or basicness) it contains. He is not certain however, and when Dutton is potentially infected he has to make a choice to tell him to do one thing or another in order to save his life. Hall chooses to tell Dutton to hyperventilate to make his blood more acidic, even though Stone disagrees. But Hall has done the work, and even if the exact reasons are unknown, he does know that the survivors lived for a reason. He had eliminated all the other possibilities, so his suggestion, while untried, was bound to work. And of course it does. The scientific method of research, hypothesizing, and testing is usually not as risky, but is how scientists discover new things.
The Final Frontier
Robert Wise was a director of a large variety of films over his 47-year career. From a sci-fi standpoint, three of his films are some of the most important works in the genre beginning with The Day The Earth Stood Still, this film, and then Star Trek: The Motion Picture (in 1979). The Andromeda Strain does represent the most pessimistic of the three, as Day and Star Trek represent man reaching past his existing boundaries, and becoming a greater species in the process. Compare these to his non-genre films such as West Side Story and The Sound of Music to see what an amazing career this gentleman had.
Michael Crichton would fuel Hollywood’s sci-fi thriller machine for decades to come. His books would continue to be hit films up until his untimely death in 2008. Besides some non-genre thrillers, such as Dealing, The Carey Treatment, The Great Train Robbery, Rising Sun and Disclosure, his other sci-fi novels that were adapted include Westworld (spawning a film and a now successful television series), The Terminal Man, Coma, Congo, Sphere, Timeline and, of course, the Jurassic Park franchise. He would also write some original works for the screen including the sci-fi films Looker and Runaway, as well as the disaster-epic Twister. He was also a successful director, filming five of his own works, including Westworld and Coma. Very few authors’ success comes close to what Crichton achieved, being able to have his work adapted, as well as writing and directing original works as well.
Of course The Andromeda Strain would be an influential film for techno-thrillers, medical films, and films dealing with authority run amok. As mentioned earlier, films such as Warning Sign and Outbreak were direct descendants of this film, but even Jurassic Park owes a lot, thematically, to the notions established in The Andromeda Strain. After nearly 50 years, the film still stands as a prime example of scientific accuracy, tension-filled moments, and the hubris that mankind is the superior of all organisms.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.