Program Notes: The Andromeda Strain (1971)

Hollywood has a long history of movies about aliens who come to Earth bent on conquest.

But how do you fight an alien germ?

That’s the question posed by The Andromeda Strain, director Robert Wise’s 1971 nail-biter adaptation of Michael Crichton’s best-selling sci-fi novel.

Instead of voracious vegetables (The Thing from Another World), copper-skinned, big-headed Martians (Invaders from Mars) or gigantic lizard creatures (20 Million Miles to Earth), the deadly alien of Andromeda... is a microscopic virus...a virus with the capacity to destroy all human life.

Over the last 40 years The Andromeda Strain has earned a formidable reputation among fantasy aficionados as one of the most realistic – if not the most realistic – science fiction movies ever.

Film Screening:
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Monday, Jan. 30 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

From the technology on display (state of the art in 1971) to the performances by a cast of character actors (director Wise feared that big stars would upset the delicate balance he was going for), the film steers largely clear of melodrama and clings to the possible if not the probable.

The residents of a small New Mexican community all die suddenly. The sole exceptions are a hyperventilating infant and a grizzled old drunk.

Military types and men in black round up a handful of scientists (one is presiding over a cocktail party when he’s snatched) who are flown to a subterranean bunker in the Nevada desert. This high-tech lab is called Wildfire; it was built by the government to be used if and when an alien "bug" lands on our planet.

For that is what has happened. A returning satellite has crashed in New Mexico, releasing...well, something deadly. The question is whether the four scientists (played by Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson and Kate Reid) can isolate the threat and find a way to counter it.

Oh, yeah, there’s another wrinkle. The Wildfire facility has been built on top of a nuclear warhead. In the event that any alien contaminant gets loose, the whole place will automatically go up in a mushroom cloud.

In terms of pacing and style, The Andromeda Strain is closer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey than a typical monster-from-space film. It’s relatively slow (at least until the last reel) and eschews conventional action.

In other words, it is a thinking person’s science fiction.

Film critic Roger Ebert has some interesting thoughts on why The Andromeda Strain works so well:

"One of the problems with science-fiction movies has always been the hardware. We're asked to believe that our heroes are somewhere beyond Alpha Centauri and picking up steam, but their control panel looks like a 1949 Studebaker that's dropped acid...

"2001 put all that behind, and made it necessary for science-fiction movies (ambitious ones, at least) to create a plausible environment. The Andromeda Strain does that absolutely brilliantly."

Much of the film’s fun, Ebert maintains, is watching how the human characters "pick up the computer state of mind. They occasionally lapse into humanity...but when the going gets tough, they become abstract and machine-like even toward each other."

In addition to giving the film a clean, uber-modern look, Wise fiddled with the soundtrack. Andromeda... was one of the few movies up to that time (1956's Forbidden Planet was another) to feature a largely electronic musical score. Composer Gil Melle used electronically generated noises, manipulated taped sounds and bursts of “white noise,” augmented every now and then with some conventional percussion, a piano and a double bass.

See Bob's general introduction to the Robert Wise film series.

Other films in the series “Robert Wise: Hollywood Journeyman”

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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