The Andromeda Strain (1971)


(director: Robert Wise; screenwriters: Nelson Gidding/from the book by Michael Crichton; cinematographer: Richard H. Kline; editors: Stuart Gilmore/John W. Holmes; music: Gil Melle; cast: Arthur Hill (Dr. Jeremy Stone), David Wayne (Dr. Charles Dutton), James Olson (Dr. Mark Hall), Kate Reid (Dr. Ruth Leavitt), Paula Kelly (Karen Anson); Runtime: 127; MPAA Rating: G; producer: Robert Wise; Universal; 1971)

“The paranoid thriller unfolds at a tedious pace and seems to take forever to develop.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Wise (“West Side Story”/”The Sound of Music”) is the director and producer of The Andromeda Strain. It’s based on the novel by Michael Crichton, and though the overall effort is only so-so it is still a beautiful and stylistically rich science fiction film. The Andromeda Strain is a deadly extraterrestrial virus that is brought to earth when a research satellite crashes near the tiny village of Piedmont, New Mexico. The author’s main aim to make the connect between the outer space probe and a secret bacteriological warfare project is accomplished in a plodding way by the filmmaker. Crichton decided after this flick to direct his own works. I don’t blame him, as the paranoid thriller unfolds at a tedious pace and seems to take forever to develop without having the full force of the book.

After the outer space ship crashes and only two locals survive, an infant and an elderly man suffering from ulcers, a national state of emergency is declared. It’s soon learned a secret project known as ‘Scoop’ was using satellites in an attempt to collect micro-organisms from outer space. The two survivors and the recovered space probe are transported to a huge underground laboratory, and a team of scientists studies the space probe. The team includes biologist Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill), microbiologist Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid), blood chemistry authority Mark Hall (James Olson), and pathologist Charles Dutton (David Wayne), all the scientists are painted with broad strokes to make them more or less stereotypical figures.

When Stone, the team’s head scientist, inspects Piedmont, he finds that none of the vics bled and some other strange developments. This is enough for him to call Washington to order a ‘712’ – the nuclear destruction of the town. The team has the task of destroying the alien organism and trying to determine how a baby and an old drunkard remained immune to its deadly effects. It all leads to the exciting finale, in which the heroes must turn off a self-destruct device.

The strain I felt most was in how ponderous was the delivered message about how secretly our government operates and how dangerous this secrecy can be. Looking back at the film at this late date, it seems outdated. But it does raise questions about conspiracy theories, nuclear fears, and government trust, views I can share with the author. For the record, I believe that our government is telling the truth only when they think it is in their interest to tell the truth, not necessarily when it is in the interest of the public to know the truth.