The Andromeda Strain (1971)


Introduction

The Andromeda Strain is a 1971 American science fiction thriller film produced and directed by Robert Wise.

Based on Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel of the same name and adapted by Nelson Gidding, the film stars Arthur Hill, James Olson, Kate Reid, and David Wayne as a team of scientists who investigate a deadly organism of extra-terrestrial origin. With a few exceptions, the film follows the book closely. The special effects were designed by Douglas Trumbull. The film is notable for its use of split screen in certain scenes.

Outline

The story unfolds in flashback, told by Dr. Jeremy Stone as he testifies before a congressional committee:

After a US government satellite crashes near the small rural town of Piedmont, New Mexico, almost all of the town’s residents die. A military recovery team tries to recover the satellite but is unsuccessful. Suspecting that the satellite has brought back an alien organism, the military activates an elite team of scientists.

Wearing protective suits, Dr. Stone, the team leader, and Dr. Mark Hall, a surgeon, are dropped in Piedmont by helicopter. They find that the town’s doctor had opened the satellite in his office and that all of his blood has crystallized into a powder. They soon discover that almost all of the victims’ blood has crystallised, causing rapid death. Two other townspeople have committed suicide after going insane. Stone and Hall retrieve the satellite and find two survivors, a 69-year-old alcoholic man named Peter Jackson and a six-month-old infant, Manuel Rios.

In addition to Stone and Hall, the elite team also includes Dr. Charles Dutton and Dr. Ruth Leavitt, who are summoned to a top-secret underground facility, code named Wildfire, located in Nevada. Upon arrival, they undergo extreme decontamination procedures, descending through four disinfection levels to a fifth level where laboratories are located. If the organism threatens to escape, the Wildfire facility includes an automatic nuclear self-destruct mechanism to incinerate all infectious agents. Under the “odd man hypothesis”, Dr. Hall is entrusted with the only key that can deactivate the device, the theory being that an unmarried male is the most dispassionate person within a group to make critical decisions in a crisis.

By examining the satellite with powerful cameras, the team discovers the microscopic alien organism responsible for the deaths in New Mexico. The greenish, throbbing life form is assigned the code name “Andromeda.” Andromeda kills animal life almost instantly and appears to be highly virulent. The team studies the organism using animal subjects, an electron microscope, and culturing in various growth media in an attempt to learn how it behaves. Hall tries to determine why the elderly man and the baby survived.

A military jet crashes near Piedmont after the pilot radioes that his plastic oxygen mask is dissolving. Meanwhile, Dr. Stone, who created the Wildfire laboratory, is accused by Dutton and Leavitt of designing the lab for biological warfare research. Unknown to other team members, Leavitt’s research on the germ is impaired by her undisclosed epilepsy.

Hall realizes that the alcoholic Jackson survived because his blood was acidic from drinking Sterno, and that the baby lived due to his blood being too alkaline from constant crying, suggesting that the organism, Andromeda, can survive only within a narrow range of blood pH. Just as he has this insight, the organism mutates into a non-lethal form that degrades synthetic rubber and plastics. Andromeda escapes the containment room into the lab where Dutton is working. Once all the laboratory’s seals start decaying due to Andromeda’s escape, a five-minute countdown to nuclear destruction is initiated.

Hall rescues Leavitt from an epileptic seizure, triggered by the flashing red lights of Wildfire’s alarm system. Meanwhile, the team realises that the alien microbe would thrive on the energy of a nuclear explosion and would consequently be transformed into a super-colony that could destroy all life on Earth. Hall races against the laboratory’s automated defences to reach a station where he can disable the nuclear bomb with his key. He endures an attack by automated lasers as he climbs through the laboratory’s central core until he finds a working station, disables the bomb, and then collapses.

Hall awakens in a hospital bed. His colleagues reveal that clouds are being seeded over the Pacific Ocean, which will cause rain to sweep Andromeda from the atmosphere and into alkaline seawater, rendering it harmless. The movie ends with Stone testifying to a US senator that, while they were able to defeat the alien pathogen, they may be unable to do so in the future. The film ends with a computer screen showing Andromeda dissolving in seawater, but then the feed stops and the computer flashes the number 601, the Wildfire computer signal for information coming in too fast for the computer to analyse.

Cast

  • Arthur Hill as Dr. Jeremy Stone.
  • James Olson as Dr. Mark Hall.
  • David Wayne as Dr. Charles Dutton.
  • Kate Reid as Dr. Ruth Leavitt.
  • Paula Kelly as Karen Anson (nurse, laboratory technician).
  • George Mitchell as Mr. Peter Jackson (Piedmont).
  • Mark Jenkins as Lt. Shawn (Piedmont Team).
  • Peter Helm as Sgt. Crane (Piedmont Team).
  • Joe Di Reda as Sgt. Burk (Wildfire Computer Technician).
  • Ramon Bieri as Major Arthur Manchek (Scoop Mission Control).
  • Carl Reindel as Lt. Comroe (Scoop Mission Control).
  • Frances Reid as Clara Dutton.
  • Peter Hobbs as General Sparks.
  • Kermit Murdock as Dr. Robertson (White House Science Advisor).
  • Richard O’Brien (II) as Grimes.
  • Eric Christmas as Senator Phillips (Vermont).
  • Ken Swofford as Toby (Technician).
  • John Carter as Captain Morton (military police).
  • Richard Bull as Air Force Major.
  • James W. Gavin as Dempsey (helicopter pilot) (uncredited).
  • Garry Walberg as a scientist (uncredited).
  • Emory Parnell as Pete “Old Doughboy” Arnold (uncredited).
  • Georgia Schmidt as Old Lady (Piedmont) (uncredited).
  • Victoria Paige Meyerink as Additional Character.
  • Don Messick as Alarm Voice.
  • Michael Crichton makes a cameo appearance in a non-speaking role during the scene where Dr. Hall is told to break scrub, because he has to report to the Wildfire research facility.

Background

Film rights were bought by Universal for $250,000. The cast of characters in the novel was modified for the film, including by replacing the male Dr. Peter Leavitt in the novel with the female Dr. Ruth Leavitt. Screenwriter Nelson Gidding suggested the change to Wise, who at first was not enthusiastic, as he initially pictured the female Dr. Leavitt as a largely decorative character reminiscent of Raquel Welch’s character in the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage. When Gidding explained his take on Leavitt, Wise resolved the question by asking the opinion of a number of scientists, who were unanimously enthusiastic about the idea. Eventually Wise came to be very happy with the decision to make Leavitt female, feeling that Kate Reid’s Dr. Leavitt was “the most interesting character” in the film. Another minor change was the character of Burton in the novel, who became Charles Dutton in the film; no reason was given for this name change.

The Andromeda Strain was one of the first films to use advanced computerized photographic visual effects, with work by Douglas Trumbull, who had pioneered effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), along with James Shourt and Albert Whitlock who worked on The Birds. Reportedly $250,000 of the film’s budget of $6.5 million was used to create the special effects, including Trumbull’s simulation of an electron microscope.

The film contained a faux computer rendering, created with conventional film-making processes, of a mapped 3-D view of the rotating structure of the five-story cylindrical underground laboratory in the Nevada desert named Project Wildfire. The filming in the fictional town of Piedmont took place in Shafter, Texas.

Release

Box Office

The Andromeda Strain was a box office success. Produced on a relatively high budget of $6.5 million, the film grossed $12,376,563 in North America, earning $8.2 million in United States theatrical rentals. It was the 16th highest-grossing film of 1971.

Critical Response

The opinion of critics is generally mixed, with some critics enjoying the film for its dedication to the original novel and with others disliking it for its drawn-out plot.

Scientific Response

A 2003 publication by the Infectious Diseases Society of America noted that The Andromeda Strain is the “most significant, scientifically accurate, and prototypic of all films of this [killer virus] genre … it accurately details the appearance of a deadly agent, its impact, and the efforts at containing it, and, finally, the work-up on its identification and clarification on why certain persons are immune to it.”

Awards and Honours

The film was nominated for two Academy Awards:

  • Best Art Direction (Boris Leven, William H. Tuntke, Ruby R. Levitt); lost to Nicholas and Alexandra.
  • Best Film Editing (Stuart Gilmore, John W. Holmes); lost to The French Connection.
  • The film was nominated for science fiction’s 1972 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (for works appearing in calendar year 1971).

TV Miniseries

The Andromeda Strain, a 2008 television miniseries adaptation of the same novel:

Trivia

  • Michael Crichton was invited to take a tour of “Universal Studios” during the production of this film.
    • His guide was none other than Steven Spielberg, who went on to adapt Crichton’s most successful novel, Jurassic Park (1993).
  • The Wildfire scientific lab sets cost more than $300,000 to build and were described at the time as “one of the most elaborately detailed interiors ever built.”
  • Patient Jackson states that he drinks “squeeze”, otherwise known as Sterno, or “canned heat”; a gelled fuel made of ethanol and methanol that is sold in short, wide cans with resealable lids.
    • When lit, it produces a low, even flame and is used primarily for heating food, as in chafing dishes.
    • Although poisonous to drink, it became popular during prohibition, particularly in homeless camps.
    • The product would be placed in cheesecloth or a sock and squeezed to produce the liquid alcohol, which would be mixed with fruit juice to make so-called “jungle juice.”
    • The nickname, “squeeze” is taken from this squeezing process.
  • Effects footage and props from this film were reused in a number of episodes of “Universal Pictures” TV series for more than a decade after its release, including “The Six Million Dollar Man (1974),” “The Bionic Woman (1976),” “Knight Rider (1982)” and “Airwolf (1984).”
  • The Central Core set required the digging of a 70-ft.-deep by 40-ft.-wide hole in a soundstage.
  • This movie was made before the era of CGI, forcing the filmmakers to rely totally on practical effects.
    • For example, the rotating holographic display of the facility layout was created using a projector and a simple of piece of cardboard that was raised as each level was added.
  • The lab set design called for five circular levels, each painted a different colour.
    • In reality, only one small section of circular hallway was created.
    • As scenes in each colour-coded level were completed, scenes located in other settings would be shot while the hallway set was repainted for the next colour-coded level.
  • The set used for the Wildfire patient ‘hot’ room and cage handling scenes was reused in 1979 for the TV series “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.”

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s):
    • Robert Wise.
  • Producer(s):
    • Robert Wise … producer.
  • Writer(s):
    • Michael Crichton (novel).
    • Nelson Gidding (screenplay).
  • Music:
    • Gil Melle.
  • Cinematography:
    • Richard H. Kline … director of photography.
  • Editor(s):
    • Stuart Gilmore.
    • John W. Holmes.
  • Production:
    • Universal Pictures (presents) (as Universal).
    • Robert Wise Productions (A Robert Wise Production).
  • Distributor(s):
    • Universal Pictures (1971) (USA) (theatrical) (as A Universal ® Picture).
    • Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (1971) (Argentina) (theatrical).
    • Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (1971) (Finland) (theatrical).
    • Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (1971) (Italy) (theatrical).
    • Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (1972) (Norway) (theatrical).
    • Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (1972) (Sweden) (theatrical).
    • Rank Film Distributors (1971) (UK) (theatrical).
    • Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (1972) (West Germany) (theatrical).
    • Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (1972) (France) (theatrical).
    • National Broadcasting Company (NBC) (1973) (USA) (TV).
    • MCA Videocassette (1981) (USA) (VHS).
    • Esselte CIC Video (1983) (Belgium) (VHS).
    • MCA/Universal Home Video (1990) (USA) (video) (laserdisc).
    • Universal Pictures Home Entertainment (UPHE) (2003) (USA) (DVD).
    • Universal Pictures (2005) (Germany) (DVD).
    • Universal Pictures (2007) (Germany) (DVD).
    • Koch Media (2014) (Germany) (Blu-ray) (DVD).
    • Universal Films of India (1971) (India) (theatrical).
    • Universal Pictures India (1981) (India) (theatrical).
    • CIC Victor Video (Japan) (VHS).
    • CIC Video (West Germany) (VHS).
    • DiscoVision (USA) (video) (laserdisc) (unreleased).
    • MCA/Universal Home Video (USA) (VHS) (pan/scan).
    • MTV3 (1988) (Finland) (TV).
    • TF1 (1976) (France) (TV) (dubbed version).
    • Umbrella Entertainment (2017) (Australia) (DVD).
    • Universal Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Nordic (2015) (Finland) (Blu-ray).
    • Yleisradio (YLE) (2004) (Finland) (TV).
  • Release Date: 12 March 1971 (Canada & US).
  • Running Time: 131 minutes.
  • Rating: 15.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

Video Link

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