#41: The Andromeda Strain


1971

Director: Robert Wise

Cast: Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson, Kate Reid, Frances Reid

Watch the trailer!

Introduction      Plot Summary     Impressions     The Crichton Novel     Wrap-Up

My Rating:  Class G (5/7).  It’s pretty good, though it’s a thinker’s movie instead of an action-packed trip.  Finally, it may be too faithful to the novel, so it doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

Introduction

Okay, it’s been several weeks since I saw this film, and I’m over forty now (which means my memory is going!), so I don’t remember it as well—something that’s only going to get worse as I work backwards through the films we’ve already seen.

This is a fun film, but it’s not action-packed by any stretch of the imagination.  It’s a thinking man’s film which relies heavily on threats we can’t really see, and the conflicts aren’t interpersonal in nature.

The basic setup is this:  a satellite crashes in a small town in New Mexico, and all but two of the inhabitants die, their blood coagulated into a solid, or going crazy and dying of strokes or suicide.  The government activates Project Wildfire, a secret underground lab powered by a nuclear reactor, and brings in four scientists to isolate the contagion and destroy it.  Should the contagious agent, whatever it is, escape isolation, the nuclear reactor will go critical and destroy the facility.  Only one man has the key to stop the five minute countdown…

Once again, the movie is based on a novel, and once again, I’ve read it, so you’ll get a section on the novel as well as the film (my town had a good library and I discovered a card catalog entry for “science fiction” when I was still fairly young, which goes a long way towards explaining how often I’ve read novels turned into movies; also a big shout out to the head librarian, Liz Copeland, who is sadly no longer with us but who helped to nurture a love of reading, no matter what it was I read).

Plot Summary (contains spoilers)

Short plot summary:  I can’t give you a boy-meets-girl synopsis for this one, because it avoids that kind of a plot structure altogether.  I’ll give it a shot, though…Small town meets alien microorganism.  Alien microorganism kills all but two of the town, and is then taken to a secret government base where it meets four scientists but is not allowed to consummate the meeting.  It does, however, get to seal the deal with a monkey.  Scientists seek to get to know the alien, at a distance, as it were.  Turns out alien microorganism converts energy straight to matter, which makes the base’s failsafe device of blowing up its reactor a bad idea.  But wait!  Lead scientist recommended to the president that the destroyed small town be introduced to a nuke to sterilize it!  Thanks to political maneuvering and general incompetence, that doesn’t happen before the scientists manage to warn against it.  But then the microorganism mutates and learns to eat plastic and maybe rubber!  It gets out in the lab, infects one of the heroic scientists, and the countdown to destruction ensues.  Odd man out scientist guy has to climb up the central shaft, being pelted by lasers, to stop the self-destruct!  He makes it!  And the alien microoganism has now mutated to a non-lethal form, so everything is okay and the world is saved.

Jump to Impressions (and be saved from a long drawn out plot summary!)

Now that I’m adjusting to the short form “boy meets girl” synopsis, I’m totally not into the long synopsis, if you’ll forgive me sounding like a valley girl for a moment.  So, once again, I’m going to take the easy way out and just go with what I’ve got!

Impressions

Though the movie is billed as a thriller, I didn’t find it particularly enthralling.  In fact, I dragged my feet on doing this review quite a bit, until I finally decided that if I forced myself to do this one I would at least get to go on and do one I liked!  Don’t get me wrong;  it’s not a bad film at all.  I just don’t feel like I have much to say about it.

My lack of excitement is at least in part because I knew the story, and knew exactly what would happen and when it would happen.  The old-style deliberate pacing didn’t help, either…I’m a firm believer that Spielberg and Lucas permanantly changed the cinematic landscape with films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars in terms of pacing, abandoning the traditional three act structure where the peak comes in the middle and the third act is denoument, but we don’t need to get into theories of dramatic structure now other than to note that those innovations are at least ten and six years away, respectively.

The film doesn’t really develop the characters very strongly, with one notable exception:  Ruth Leavitt, the only female scientist.  She’s an addition, or at least alteration, from the novel, which featured four male scientists, and they were thinking when they created her.  She’s crusty, irrascible, irritable, smart, proud…a real person with real human failings.  I don’t know if I’d actually like being around her or not; she’s not mean to the people she’s around (very much) but it’s clear she doesn’t suffer fools gladly.  She is a lot of fun to watch, though, and her interactions with the oldest of the four scientists, a man she clearly respects, is particularly entertaining because it’s like she’s holding back.

The implementation of the underground lab, as well as the other science-y stuff—like the isolation lab, the waldoes, the scanners—are fun, if a bit dated in modern eyes.  It’s sort of like the difference between Star Trek (at least the original series) and what we actually have now: for whatever reason, people expected dials, meters, odomoter style numeric displays, and not radical improvements in technology (LEDs, touch sensitive screens, graphic displays).  And of course in thirty years our children will probably be saying the same thing about our dated attempts to depict the future…

The underlying science in the film was probably the least convincing element.  When we finally discover that the organism is a crystalline viral organism that directly converts matter to energy, lives in a narrow pH range, and doesn’t really like oxygen, I was nonplussed.  It’s the direct energy-to-matter conversion that really bothers me, of course;  in the physical world we just don’t see that kind of phenomena at all.  Most of the nifty things life can do are just naturally occuring processes in a unique context: photosynthesis, the conversion of light to chemical energy, for example, has a lot of non-living analogues (the photoelectric effect, for example, or the way that light can be absorbed and converted to heat by dark objects).

Now I’m no astrobiologist (there really are such things, believe it or not), but this does not sound like a probable development to me.  On the other hand, it’s a big universe (it’s really, really big and really, really old, at least if athe astrophysicists are right), and even here on our tiny little planet life has shown an astonishing variety and adaptability, so maybe it is possible.

Towards the end of the film it becomes obvious that the microbe was deliberately caught by Operation Scoop by our own government.  They were looking for a biological weapon, it appears, and they certainly found something lethal.  This is another one of those threats which seems fairly remote to me.  Biological weapons are essentially uncontrollable; it’s like setting fire to your neighbor’s house, and there’s no telling where the fire will go next.  In the late sixties and early seventies, of course, the threat of biological weapons was much more terrifying that it probably is now.  For whatever reason no one seems to be even attempting to use them, and there are enough extremist groups and lone crazies out there that if there were ANY possiblity of successfully killing lots of people, someone would have done it by now, or at least tried it.  Really, to date on the biological front the only thing we’ve ever seen was the 2001 anthrax scare—though to be fair, five people did die during those incidents.

It may simply be that I’m far too hopeful, of course.  In terms of weapons of mass destruction, though, humanity actually has a pretty good record.  We’ve only used two nukes in our history, in spite of the common wisdom that weapons are made to be used (in the case of nuclear weapons, I believe they’re made to keep them from being used on you, and frankly regard them as a defensive weapon).  Chemical warfare is widely regarded as abhorrent, and while we have seen instances of its use in the past twenty years or so, the perpetrators have tried to keep it quiet.  I’m hopeful that our species is actually quite a bit more mature about the uses of doomsday weapons than a lot of people give us credit for.

The “odd man out” hypothesis is probably worth examining here, since we’ve already got the nuclear scenario in front of us.  It’s a fictional concept, but basically Crichton seems to be advocating the idea that a disinterested (in this case that means unmarried, but which would also extend to other family members) person has far less emtional involvement in the consequences and effects of the use of nuclear weapons, and therefore is more able to make a rational and considered decision, and that’s why the unmarried scientist gets to be the one who can turn off the self-destruct.  It’s an interesting idea, I suppose, but I’m not sure I actually like the idea of a dispassionate person making decisions solely on the basis of logic.  We’re not Vulcans, and I believe that our emotional responses can be a source of strength.  Compassion, mercy, and tolerance, for example, are rooted in emotion.  Don’t get me wrong, as emotions can give us anger, fear, despair and plenty of other ways in which to justify or succumb to the temptation to commit terrible acts.  I just don’t believe that logic is all it’s cracked up to be, and most of us aren’t really all that good at it.

I found the two survivors from the dead town to be rather irritating.  The older of the two, a sterno addict (and yes, apparently alcoholics who can’t easily get beer sometimes know quite a bit about sources of denatured alcohol), was irritating because he was a poor communicator (blame his age and his illness).  The baby was even worse, because he never quit crying.  Maybe it’s an atavistic unrealized paternal thing for me, but I really can’t stand crying babies, and this one never stopped.

The Crichton Novel

The original novel was written by Michael Crichton, whose novels seem to have been made into movies with distressing regularity (maybe that’s envy talking; the man had talent).  Published in 1969, it was actually his sixth novel, but it made the New York Times bestseller list and really put Crichton on the map as a genre writer.

A quick review of the novel’s wikipedia entry convinced me I didn’t remember the novel anywhere near as well as I thought I did.  For me the film’s revelation that the microbe was a crystalline life form was a shock.  In my memory, the film presented a much more interesting idea, namely that the microbe went up with a satellite, mutated in space, and came back changed and deadly.  Well, I don’t know where I got that idea, because it wasn’t the novel.

At any rate, the film is remarkably faithful to the novel.  There are two major changes:  one name, and one gender.  Other than that, it’s a close sibling of the written original.  I don’t remember the characters in the novel as being particularly flat, though that is a valid criticism of all but the changed gender character (Ruth) in the film.

As I mention in the introduction, the novel really put Crichton on the map as a genre writer, and probably paved the way for the medical/science thriller (e.g. Robin Cook).  To be fair, Crichton’s successes in the field really tended to transcend genre.  Science fiction novels simply don’t make it onto the best seller list, but Crichton did so repeatedly, and his work includes novels that are merely speculative or even historic as opposed to science fiction (The Great Train Robbery, for example).

If you have the time and enjoy science at all, do yourself a favor and check out this book.

Wrap-up

Does this film belong in the top fifty list?  Yes, it does; its placement fairly low on the list is defensible as well.  If you like science, even a little bit, enjoy a thriller with slower pacing, and don’t mind a somewhat dated setting, rent this movie.  It doesn’t have a love story, it doesn’t have particularly memorable characters with one or two exceptions, and it’s not full of action.  But it’s still fun, and the visuals are entertaining.  The movie avoids presentations of gore or shocking images, being pretty wholesome for what is a fairly gruesome concept…as I said, a class G (middle of the road) kind of film.  I’m reminded of the Time reviewer who called The Hunt for Red October “talky and claustrophobic” (for some reason that phrase stuck with me all these years).  Yes, it was, but it was also a hellacious amount of fun with strong performances and a fantastic dramatic ending, even if the thing wasn’t always plausible (hide a submarine in Pamlico Sound?  Yeah right…maybe if it were only six feet high).  That’s pretty much my reaction to this film:  suspend disbelief, get into the spirit of the film, and enjoy the ride.  You’ll be glad you did.

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