Tuesday, June 22, 2021

50 Years Ago: The Andromeda Strain (1971)

For my money, the late Robert Wise (1914-2005) remains one of the most underrated of all genre directors. 

Wise gave the world remarkable horror films including The Haunting (1963) and Audrey Rose (1977), and sterling science fiction pictures such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and, of course, the adaptation of Michael Crichton’s best-seller, The Andromeda Strain.

Underlining all these disparate efforts is the sense of a curious and engaged guiding intellect, an artist determined to treat his material with intelligence. Wise's films are cerebral, open to new possibilities, and rife with visual imagery that skillfully reinforces the content of their narratives. Throughout his genre canon, one can detect how deeply Wise respects both his material and his audience, and this quality is a rare gift, for certain.

The Andromeda Strain showcases this Wise style or approach to a significant degree. It is pitched at a high-level, features no spoon-feeding, and creates a flawless, impeccable sense of "reality" even when dealing with futuristic hardware and the "sci-fi" threat of an alien bug landing in an American town. The film seems frighteningly plausible.

Similarly, The Andromeda Strain's actors actually look and sound like real scientists, not super models or super-stars, and so nothing is allowed to shatter the film's sense of authenticity or, similarly, suspense.

The Andromeda Strain imagines a future of science and high-tech computerization that today may seem dated, but underneath those bells-and-whistles the film -- much like Contagion (2011) -- is really about people. Specifically, The Andromeda Strain involves the ways that humans can sometimes erect barriers to success through miscommunication or personal foibles; barriers that, in the end, threaten civilization itself.  After a year of pandemic, this idea is not news, perhaps, to the American populace.

"Establishment gonna fall down and go boom..."

A satellite from Project Scoop carrying an alien micro-organism crashes in Piedmont, New Mexico, and exposure proceeds to kill all but two denizens of the town.

The U.S. government quickly marshals an emergency response, and two scientists, Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) and surgeon Mark Hall (James Olson) explore the contaminated town in bio-hazard suits. They rescue the two survivors: an old drunk, and a crying baby.

Later, at a state-of-the-art, subterranean scientific facility called Wildfire, Hall and Stone are joined by other scientists including Charles Dutton (David Wayne) and Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid), and together the group attempts to determine if the strange alien micro-organism could threaten human life throughout all of America, and indeed the world.

Studies reveal that the alien micro-organism, code-named “Andromeda” is 2-microns in diameter. Possessing a crystalline structure visible only under electronic microscope, the ever-mutating Andromeda can also grow in a vacuum, and its development is accelerated by energy discharge.

Bad news soon reaches the base about their newly discovered “bug”: a super-colony of Andromeda has formed over the Pacific Coast and is growing larger by the moment. It could kill millions of people in days.

The scientists race to avert a nuclear strike on the colony that they recommended and that was subsequently ordered by the President of the United States, realizing that the energy involved in such a detonation would only impel Andromeda to grow even larger.

Meanwhile, Dr. Hall studies his patients -- the old sterno drinker and the crying infant -- and determines that Andromeda can only survive in a narrow range of pH levels.

Before this knowledge can be applied to destroy Andromeda, however, Wildfire is contaminated, and the base’s computer initiates a timed self-destruct sequence. 

Now Dr. Hall must race through the many, self-contained levels of the Wildfire complex to avert total annihilation.

"Enemy? We did it to ourselves!"

Mankind enters the “future age” of ascendant science in director Robert Wise’s impressive techno-thriller The Andromeda Strain, and the film ultimately proves that technology and scientific know-how can battle a deadly space “bug” to a stand-still.

Accordingly, Wise and his film itself -- an adaptation of a Michael Crichton best-selling book -- seem to worship at the feet of machinery, medicine, and science, not to-mention provide a reverent near-religious litany of techno-talk. In this world, ordering up a computer test is more like quoting Scripture.

The film’s assessment of mankind, however, may seem less gracious. Here, mankind’s failings get in the way of progress, slow-down the process of stopping Andromeda, and nearly destroy the entire world. The film’s final message, diagrammed in a computerized “601 Error” is that machines are ultimately only as good as their users.

In other words, we are the weak link. If computers fail, it’s because of us.

From The Andromeda Strain’s dynamic opening credits, Wise takes pains to present new technology as a vivid brand of modern art. The colorful credits reveal overlapping, multi-colored images of schematics, inter-office communiques, top-secret documents, and the like.

These seemingly non-romantic dispatches are cut together and blended into new patterns (via superimposition) for the remarkable montage. These swirling and dazzling images are also accompanied by Gil Melle’s machine-like electronic score, and the final effect is both staggering and thematically daring. 

We might very well be watching a computer program’s vision of art. This imagery conveys the idea that machines aren’t just tools, but capable of moving into terrains that man has long reserved for himself: artistry, creativity, imagination.

In assembling the blueprints, maps, graphs and other images for the purposes of this montage, the film’s opening credits take a step beyond Jackson Pollock, forging heretofore unseen, unconnected patterns out of dot matrix scans and the like, in the determined synthesis of something new and bold.

The implicit message: technology is your friend.

This pro-automation approach runs deliberately counter to one of the most common ideas of 1970s science fiction cinema, as related in films such as Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) or Demon Seed (1977), that technology will prove man’s undoing.

Instead, The Andromeda Strain’s dialogue reinforces the notion of a world in which science will save the day. The film is dominated by tongue-twisters like “Red Kappa Phoenix Status,” and the scientists eat “Nutrient 2-5” while ordering up a test called a “7-12.”

Although these phrases seem like meaningless jargon in simple human terms, in this world they are vital symbols of man’s ascent to a more evolved plateau.

The science-talk reflects Wise’s uncanny ability (also seen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture) to forge a documentary-like or “realistic” tone in science fiction, but also suggests that in the first space age emergency, space age lingo is a necessity. Advances in computers, science and medicine will change the world, and they will also change how we talk, the film indicates.  Our words will change, in their very nature, as we embrace the machinery of the future age.

It’s difficult to deny that this is actually the case, and in the 2020s laypeople talk about “wireless routers,” “diagnostic updates,” “system restores” and other once arcane-seeming phrases with the enthusiasm and knowledge of the scientists portrayed in The Andromeda Strain.  The revolution in technology involves not just what we can achieve with computers, but how we speak about them, and relate to one another over them.

The tools used by the scientists in The Andromeda Strain are often the focus of Wise’s intent directorial sight, and electron microscopes, computer scans, “electronic diagrams” and other visuals are regularly highlighted by the camera. The idea, of course, is that in the dawn of a new age, machines will make the difference between life and death on planet Earth. Robert Wise even once called his film’s setting -- the Wildfire Base -- the real star of the movie.

And of course, he’s right. Without the resources of this subterranean base, man would not be able to stop the spread of Andromeda.

Wise’s treatment of man himself is far less generous in The Andromeda Strain

For example, Dr. Ruth Leavitt is an epileptic, and she hides that vital knowledge from her co-workers and hence from the computerized databases in Wildfire. So when an important computer screen transmits its data to her in red-blinking lights, Leavitt cannot receive it. She seizes instead, and has no memory of having seen the crucial data.

Thus a personal embarrassment or foible nearly ends the world.  Ruth's sin, perhaps, is vanity. She does not wish to be seen as weak, or incompetent in front of the other scientists, but her plan to hide her illness nearly has catastrophic impact.

Again, no one can blame this series of unfortunate events on the computer, which accurately tagged the “no-growth” medium for Andromeda that Leavitt sought. Instead, user error -- human error -- is the culprit. 

Similarly, the scientists at Andromeda order a nuclear strike at Piedmont before they have all the facts. They make an assumption that a nuclear blast will wipe out an alien organism, and this is -- again -- proven catastrophically wrong. In fact, the opposite would have been true. A nuclear blast would have spread a super-colony of Andromeda across the entirety of the North American continent.

In this case, the scientists are prevented from causing global-scale catastrophe only by a machine failure: a paper jam in a printer-like device. So again, even inadvertently, the machines of The Andromeda Strain save man from himself.

And, of course, Andromeda comes to Earth in the first place as part of a secret plot by the U.S. government to harness it as a bio-weapon, and then develop it at the Wildfire installation. Man brings about his own near-death by his self-destructive tendencies, by his jingoistic desire to defeat enemies. 

Other Wildfire denizens seen in The Andromeda Strain are not much more self-aware than Leavitt is. Trained scientists panic and flee when they believe that Wildfire is contaminated with the alien organism. They do not act rationally and attempt to help Hall, who has -- dangling around his neck in the form of a key -- the capacity to save everybody from nuclear apocalypse. 

Instead, they resort to fear, paranoia and terror.  Once more, we must consider that our machines are not susceptible to such influences. 

Again, post-pandemic, we have seen how human fragility -- regarding vaccination hesitancy, mask usage, and more -- has made the resolution of the pandemic that much more difficult.  It's not the science or the technology hampering us now, it's our irrational, stubborn human beliefs and attitudes. 

All of this material about panic and paranoia comes late in the film, but Wise hooks the audience early (and permanently) with his staging of the Piedmont reconnaissance.  

We are led, by two relatively staid scientists, through a ghost-town of sorts, the aftermath of a grisly disaster. And yet Wise doesn't linger or wallow in the terror.  

Instead, his camera again adopts a documentary approach, so that we are asked to observe the events in all their stark, clinical horror, but largely without editorializing.  He reports, and we take note, coming to conclusions ourselves about occurred to Piedmont.  Wise sticks with this restrained approach as, in the finale, the countdown to annihilation occurs.  

As a result, the film's denouement is extremely anxiety-provoking and suspenseful.  We feel we are watching real events unfold from a distance, and with no guarantee that things will turn out as we would prefer.

There may be some viewers who watch The Andromeda Strain and seek a more human-centered story about resolving the first biological crisis of the space age. But the film’s glory is that this is not the story it tells at all.

Instead, Wise tells the story of man’s amazing machinery solving the problem, and this is a creative, counter-intuitive approach to the material.  

 If we can just get out of our own way, the director seems to suggest, we'll be all right.

This idea is also -- in its own weird way -- optimistic.

After all, who built all these great machines in the first place?

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