A US satellite crashes to earth in a small town carrying a
deadly bacterium. Scientists at Wildfire, a top secret underground
installation, battle to understand the alien lifeform and
prevent a massive outbreak...
sometimes cite Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain
as an example of how authentic science-fiction genre differs
from more commonplace fantasy and horror that 'hijack' futuristic
settings. A new DVD of the 1971 film adaptation has just replaced
an earlier 'vanilla' disc, and includes specially-produced
documentaries that explore this and other aspects of the work.
the book, the film purports to be a 'true' story based on
soon-to-be declassified documents and is shot in a cool, documentary
style. It features technology that is just a nudge ahead of
its production date and looks at issues that come from inside
Pandora's Box, rather than some satirical exaggeration of
After more than 30 years, you might expect the story to have
lost much of its impact and there are glaring anachronisms.
Characters talk about 'time-sharing' for computers, a concept
that has become very dated (SETI being the one obvious exception).
The graphics look childishly simple, throwbacks to when comp-scis
would wow kids with Snoopy drawings made on golfball printers.
And the movie carries an electronic score that today sounds
like cues the BBC Radiophonic Workshop rejected. However,
all this is offset by the consistent realism and the dividends
The Andromeda Strain was criticised in the Seventies
for being too slow-paced and low-key, these aspects seem to
have extended its shelf-life. The utilitarian interior of
the Wildfire facility rings true - it still feels like this
is the kind of place where they would do this kind of thing.
Meanwhile, the comparatively heavy science content works well:
popular understanding of the topic today demands such accuracy
in terms of how characters think and act (even though, if
you listen very carefully to what comes over the Tannoy, it's
film also has a robust narrative structure, a skilful blend
of detective story, apocalyptic thriller, and cautionary tale.
This is present in the novel, but is enhanced on celluloid
by Nelson Gidding's literate and - jargon notwithstanding
- witty screenplay. For his part, director Robert Wise (The
Day The Earth Stood Still) is an old hand who knows how
to manipulate the various elements, getting as much from the
tension between his characters as he does from the climactic
scrabble to stop a nuclear bomb vaporising Wildfire, and,
at the same time, spreading the bacterium far and wide.
such boundaries, a no-star cast of top-notch character actors
plays to that old notion of 'real people in exceptional circumstances'.
The histrionics of a comparable but more recent film, like
1995's Outbreak, have no place. We are not force fed
picture-perfect heroes, but scientists who look increasingly
gaunt and become more frustrated as sleepless hours pass in
their quest for a solution. And they all make mistakes - big,
very human mistakes.
the really big contrast between this movie and sci-fi as typically
served up by Hollywood is not so much its technological content
(sorry, you purists) as its concentration on achieving and
then exploiting your suspension of disbelief.
the best genre outings now tend to emphasise that what you
are watching really is 'only a movie'. They go over-the-top
either in terms of special effects or performances - or both.
The Andromeda Strain tries to suck you into its world
so that your passivity/helplessness as a spectator runs in
parallel to the inevitable ignorance of characters trying
to master something completely alien. It's long - 131 minutes
- but it does demand and reward your attention thanks to the
craft involved and its intelligence.
that, the film also refuses to offer 'closure', that happy,
waltz-off-into-the-sunset element so beloved of studio executives.
If the scientists succeed in their battle against the bacterium,
it is more by luck than judgement. Technology is shown to
be far from reliable (I won't spoil it, but the film features
what is still one of the best uses of Murphy's Law in fiction).
And the coda leaves a worrying question hanging in mid-air:
"What might happen next time?"
is the temptation to say that The Andromeda Strain
has reacquired contemporary relevance because of its underlying
theme of biological warfare and current fears about the terrorist
use of such weapons. Well, that's beyond dispute. If you live
in a major city (Washington DC, in my case), the accidental
echo is there. But the film's traditional virtues are more
important and those are what make it excellent entertainment.
the Universal DVD - to make sure you get the right one, note
that it replaces a disc from Image Entertainment - the two
fine new documentaries are the work of the 'special features'
answer to Spielberg, Laurent Bouzereau.
first is a 30-minute 'making of', with contributions from
Wise, Crichton, Gidding and special effects supervisor Douglas
Trumbull. It delivers valuable insights into the production
process and why various dramatic decisions were taken. The
second programme runs for just over 12 minutes and offers
Crichton's views about the genesis of the novel, the structural
and stylistic choices he made, and the beginnings of what
has become a huge literary career. Fans will enjoy hearing
this articulate and intelligent author address his early works.
anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer and 2.0 Dolby Digital mono soundtrack
are excellent. While you might be disappointed that a 5.1
remix has not been added (a 70mm six-track version of the
film was screened in the 1970s), bear in mind that Wise dislikes
surround sound, particularly its use of rear speakers. He
regards the multichannel format as a distraction from the
images on screen, so this DVD is pretty much how he wants
his movie to be seen and heard.
off with the original trailer and subtitles in Spanish and
French, the disc's one disappointment is the absence of a
Wise commentary. The veteran director has contributed thoughtful
and informative tracks for some of his other films, most notably
DTESS and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
said, there is still enough in this new 'strain' to make the
disc a worthwhile addition to any collection, and even to
tempt owners of the earlier release to trade up.
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