Imagine, a microscopic organism threatening life on Earth. A space germ. This life-form came from space, attached to one of our research satellites, and is now killing human and animal life. A team of scientists and medical researchers are racing against time to find a way to control this extraterrestrial organism, which will known as the Andromeda Strain.
That’s the premise of the 1969 science fiction novel by Michael Crichton, adapted into a film by veteran director Robert Wise. The film is almost too scary and documentary-like to be entertaining. When it was released in 1971, it returned only a modest profit, but it is an amazing film.
Most of the film takes place in the Wildfire complex, an underground facility of multiple levels, a high security medical and science research laboratory. Four very smart people are gathered to investigate and find an answer to this organism. They are racing a clock against the spread of the organism where it landed, and to stay ahead of it as it morphs and presents new dangers.
Wise was a technologically savvy filmmaker, who knew that this film required new techniques, and that the science of the story needed to be believable. The film was mainly using science to solve a mystery. Even though the film closely followed Crichton’s book, bringing it to the screen would require some camera wizardry.
The film contains a lot of creative camera imagery as the organism is photographed as it divides and grows, and as streams of data fill the screen in a way not previously displayed in a film until 2001: A Space Odyssey changed the visual landscape. Wise enlisted Douglas Trumball, a young technical wizard who worked on 2001 to assist with the camera and animation challenges for The Andromeda Strain. One of the devices Trumball devised was to attach a 35mm camera and a microscope. Photographing it was easy, making it move, grow and change color were needed to bring the image in the microscope to frightening life. Trumpball and his team creating a techniques that used a strobe and high-speed photography, and hooking it up to a processor that made the image distort and add texture, creating the impression that the organism was growing and adapting in shape.
Trumball would go on to provide special effects for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Brainstorm, Blade Runner and many other films. Fifty years ago, the camera and image creativity of these films did not exist. With 2001, Trumball and his team were making it up as they went, giving audiences film image experiences never seen before.
The space satellite is discovered in the town of Piedmont, N.M., where all but two of the towns people are dead. Even the military retrieval team is dead. Most of them are discovered with their blood crystallized (turned to powder). An old man and a baby are the only survivors. The satellite was opened, which accounts for the deaths. The survivors and satellite are taken to Wildfire for examination and research.
Wildfire is a secure facility, meaning compartments can be sealed off in case of contamination, and the facility is designed with a fail-safe system to destroy it should the contamination attempt to breech the facility. The facility has a more ominous endeavor, research into the biological use of organisms for warfare.
The film covers four days.
The team consists of: Arthur Hill as Dr. Jeremy Stone, James Olson as Dr. Mark Hall, David Wayne as Dr. Charles Dutton, and Kate Reid as Dr. Ruth Leavitt. Each represent a specialty. In the book, the four are men, but the screenwriter suggested having one be a woman. Excellent choice; Reid is a great addition and delivers some of the best comic relief lines in the film. Wise intentionally used character actors instead of stars; the focus was to be in the story not the actors. Each of these folks turn in powerful performances. You know just enough about the characters to understand them, but their personalities never overpower the story.
Two members of the team are sent to Piedmont. They are the ones that find the survivors. Birds eating on the dead are gassed to prevent spreading the contamination.
As part of the protocol, the President can order nuclear destruction of Piedmont to eliminate the contamination. The President delays making a decision. Above ground nuclear explosions are restricted by international treaty.
The team must fully decontaminate before they can start work in an ultra clean environment. It takes the team 16 hours to fully decontaminate and are medically tested before they can get to work. The first thing they test is whether the satellite is still contaminated, so they put various animals put in the hot room with it. Each animal dies. This is a detective story of science.
Using scientific analysis they find the organism is airborne and 2 microns in size. It is spread through the air, and enters the body through the lungs, where it begins destroying the blood, which turns to powder.
Under microscopic analysis they find a spec from the capsule and under high magnification it appears to move, vibrating, as it seems to grow. Trumball makes that small object very threatening as it fills the screen as it pulses.
Soon after, a military plane crashes near Piedmont, the pilot radios that his oxygen mask and other rubber parts of the aircraft suddenly dissolve. Not only does it kill people, it now destroys rubber, like materials that seal compartments. More on that later.
A problem develops in the teletype machine. No messages are received at Wildfire, including the communication about the rubber dissolving discovery. When the communication problem is discovered, they eventually learn of the rubber issue, and that the President hasn’t dropped the bomb on Piedmont. The contamination has expanded beyond the Piedmont area.
The team discover how the structure supports growth without chemical processes. It can grow in a vacuum like space and functions like an atomic reactor. The team is told that the President has agreed to drop the bomb. They realize that a nuclear explosion would create a massive growth medium, which would be a disaster, but now they must get the President to canceled the bomb, which also means the contamination will spread.
In their analysis, they observe the organism divides and morphs at the same time. All of this data is fed into the computer, which overloads it.
At Wildfire, one of the seals breaks in a compartment, triggering an alarm. One of the team is trapped in the compartment at the facility goes on lock-down. They also notice one of the team experiences an epileptic seizure from the warning light.
All the while, the team has been trying to figure out why the two survivors were not harmed by the organism. Testing their blood, they make a discovery. The organism can only grow in a narrow ph range.
At the same time the organism mutates to a non-lethal form but it is destroying the rubber seals in Wildfire. The self-destruct mechanism is triggered. They have five minutes to self destruct. A team member must get to the central core to deactivate it, getting past the facility’s defense mechanisms.
A plum of the organism from Piedmont did escape over the Southwest, but stayed in a non lethal form. Scientists plan to seed the clouds to induce rain so it would wash into the oceans where the chemistry of the seawater would kill it.
The film ends rather ambiguously, did the seawater really destroy it or was it mutating. The last scene is the computer processing data and freezes on the code for overload.
Wise is a fine director but he gets too immersed in details. His films move at a snails pace. The editing on this film was superb, but the story could have been tightened up by 10 minutes. It’s a fascinating film but for the average viewer is it slow. He had the same problem with The Hindenburg and on a massive scale with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which is grand but almost boring.