Posts Tagged ‘Arthur Hill’

The reimagining of Westworld as a proper, mature, hide-granny’s-eyes TV series might, you would have thought, have ensured a little attention for the director of the original movie, but this has turned out not to be the case. Perhaps this is because the one of the creators of the new Westworld is Jonathan Nolan, a notable figure in his own right; perhaps the fact that Michael Crichton died nearly ten years ago may also be significant. Even so, it’s surely a shame – Crichton didn’t create the kind of books or films that get a lot of critical respect, but they’ve certainly had an impact on modern culture, and some of them were actually pretty good.

Of course, it helps if you have the right people involved, and in the history of film-making there have been few pairs of hands safer than that of Robert Wise, who directed the 1971 film version of Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain. It seems to me that some people dismiss Wise as just another studio journeyman, reliably knocking out the likes of The Sound of Music and West Side Story, but on their own terms, these are still exceptionally accomplished films. The Andromeda Strain was the second of Wise’s three SF movies, the others being The Day the Earth Stood Still and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (they are a peculiarly disparate trio).

The story opens with the team sent to retrieve a US satellite that has just returned to Earth discovering a silent, still small town in Arizona. Everyone there has dropped dead, apparently simultaneously – as the team discover in the very final moments of their own lives.

The government responds by activating a team of scientists prepared for just this contingency: the arrival on Earth of a lethal extraterrestrial pathogen. Two of them, Stone (Arthur Hill) and Hall (James Olson), venture into the dead town in spacesuits to locate the missing satellite, while Dutton (David Wayne) and Leavitt (Kate Read) proceed directly to the team’s secret facility beneath the Nevada desert.

Stone and Hall join them shortly, bringing with them two people who have inexplicably survived the alien pathogen – the town drunk and a small, understandably distressed child. Everyone proceeds to the lowest and most secure level of the base, while a strong recommendation is made that a nuclear weapon be used to obliterate the town and remove any chance of the infection spreading to more densely populated regions. Work gets underway on the process of locating, analysing, and neutralising the deadly agent, code-named Andromeda – the ultimate sanction being the presence in the base of another nuclear device, which will be used to sterilise the area if Andromeda shows any signs of escaping into the outside world…

When you watch The Andromeda Strain these days, you’re never very far away from a reminder that this is a film made in the early 1970s. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film; far from it. But it is one very much of its era. Partly this is reflected in the way it is filmed and edited: Wise reveals a fondness for split-screen effects, which were briefly modish in the late 60s and early 70s. Mostly, though, the film is simply very obviously part of a whole lineage of rather grim American films from this period, all concerned with technology and existential threats to human existence. It’s second cousin to The Forbin Project, for instance, sharing that film’s preoccupation with underground facilities and the dubious wisdom of putting computers in charge of nukes. But, as I said, virtually every major studio SF film of the early 1970s was at least a little bit dystopian, and The Andromeda Strain comes off this way too.

The odd thing is that this isn’t really because of the threat of the Andromeda life-form itself, but a consequence of the antiseptic and inhuman environment the characters have created to contain it. The Wildfire project does not seem like a fun place to work – everyone there is po-faced, to say the least (although, with the exception of Kate Reid’s character, the whole movie is notably humourless). There’s something oddly conflicted about a film which, on the one hand, spends a huge amount of time fetishising the technology on display in it – waldos, computers, scanners, laser guns, and so on – but at the same time is obviously fundamentally disquieted by all of this gleaming, inhuman power.

(As a side note, it also occurs to me that The Andromeda Strain – if not the movie, then certainly the book – was surely a key influence on the British TV show Doomwatch, which I wrote about recently. The Andromeda Strain is marginally more SF, but both deal with teams of experts attempting to tackle unusual scientific threats to human life, with the emphasis much more on ideas and science than on the characters as people. Stone’s initial declaration that the town must be isolated and destroyed to prevent Andromeda from spreading recalls one episode of Doomwatch, but the smoking gun, surely, comes when the alien organism mutates into a form which eats plastic, causing a jet which encounters it to disintegrate in mid-air – suffice to say, the first episode of Doomwatch was entitled The Plastic Eaters and features jet planes having similar in-flight difficulties.)

Was Michael Crichton trying to make a serious point when he wrote the original novel, or was he just going for maximum verisimilitude by adopting such a down-to-earth tone? It’s hard to say, but The Andromeda Strain takes itself very seriously, even for an early 1970s SF movie. Wise later spoke of it having an almost documentary quality, which is helped by the fact it is filled with obscure character actors rather than movie stars. You have to keep your mind on the job while you’re watching it, too, given so much of it takes the form of actors playing scientists talking very earnestly to each other about matters of methodology, procedure, and their various hypotheses.

That said, of course, they have to produce a suitably exciting climax from somewhere, and The Andromeda Strain manages it rather neatly – not only does Andromeda eat its way through the plastic filters sealing the lowest level of the base, starting the countdown on the bomb, but the team realise that life-form is so alien that the nuclear blast will just provide it with an energy source that will let it multiply and infest the whole planet. Much scrambling up ladders and dodging automated laser guns ensues, as a desperate attempt to disarm the nuke is undertaken. In retrospect all of this seems more than a little bit contrived, but it does result in a genuinely tense and exciting conclusion to the film.

Even so, it’s not exactly an upbeat ending – not only has the gleaming apparatus of the installation come up short in several respects, mostly due to human frailty, but Stone admits to a government enquiry that there is no guarantee that any future incursions from space can be contained in this way. Still, this is pretty much par for the course, and in fact The Andromeda Strain is rather more cheerful than many of its contemporaries – Earth isn’t cracked open like an egg, or left a sterile industrial hell, or depopulated by a lethal virus. Maybe the movie makes the mistake of taking itself just a bit too seriously, but it’s still an impressively well-made, rather unusual SF film.


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