Friday, June 13, 2008

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

"The Andromeda Strain" (Robert Wise, 1971) Robert Wise's return to sci-fi (The Day the Earth Stood Still) after years in the musical field (West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Star!) proved that he was just as effective a gritty story teller as he was a choreographer. Michael Crichton's first best-seller (he'd paid his way through medical school writing pulp novels and thrillers, then abandoned a medical career to write) hit the wave of nervousness fearing "moon-germs" infesting Earth from the first Apollo moon-landings. Crichton had a fascinating little gambit--he filled the book with graphs and text and bibliography sitings that gave the book the air of legitimacy, when, in fact, he made everything up whole cloth, even the citations. Nobody cried "fowl," or hauled him before Oprah to be pilloried. He merely went on to write his series of oddly-cautionary fast-reads of the dangers of current technology, all like prose-screenplays waiting to be filmed, only occasionally departing from the formula to write something interesting ("The Great Train Robbery," "Eaters of the Dead"). His characters were largely cyphers, until after a brief flirtation with movie-making, all of his leads seemd to be based on Sean Connery (who starred in Crichton's film of his own The Great Train Robbery).

But, that's the future. For The Andromeda Strain, Wise pulled off a similar cinematic trick--he didn't cast stars, just good character actors (and a couple of formidable stage actors) for the leads, filmed what was essentially a "bottle show" (mostly taken place in a contained space with few exteriors in an unfussy, clean style in wide panavision and split-screen, and maybe the first instance of on-screen date/time/location computer updates graphicked across the screen to orient ourselves. It's played out in as unmelodramatic a way as was possible with minimum effects.

Wise and screenwriter Nelson Giddings do a thorough job of negotiating Crichton's juggled narrative and technical jargon, not withholding anything essential to the investigation no matter how arcane, and boil it down like a detective story to the central puzzle of why two disparate survivors escaped having their blood crystallized, which is, how is a perfectly healthy squawling baby similar to a decrepit vagabond with a bleeding ulcer and a taste for drinking sterno. Obvious answers are discarded and it's a neat exercise in re-thinking a problem. The examination of Andromeda is not dumbed down and a casual observer with no history of medicine or biology will learn a lot about organisms and infections and how they function, as well as the odd lesson in decision-making, the prejudice against epilepsy-sufferers and feng shui as related to color.

It's smart. And it assumes the viewer is smart enough to follow along, and that's refreshing (especially compared to its mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging remake-see below), and it's core cast (the irreplaceable Arthur Hill and Kate Reid, David Wayne and James Olsen) does a terrific job of underplaying the drama (the smaller, more bureaucratic roles have a tendency to drift towards melodrama and easy caricature), and it has a smashing pay-off with one of the best cliff-hangers in sci-fi history (as did the book, and you'd have to be pretty incompetent (see below) to keep it from being a nail-biter.

Arthur Hill and James Olsen in the relatively safe "red" zone of the Wildfire Complex.

It's a neglected techno-thriller from two of the masters of the craft at the top of their game.


A & E just aired a two-part miniseries that "updates" "The Andromeda Strain." "Updates" must be Hollywood code for "screwing up." As Produced by the Scotts brothers (Ridley and Tony), directed by Mikael Solomon (cinematographer for Ron Howard and James Cameron, so he's done hazard-duty), and scripted by Robert Schenkkan (Pulitzer Prize winner for "The Kentucky Cycle"), this botched version of the novel by "J. Michael Crichton" (As he's listed in the credits. He's never gone by that name, ever) takes the biological warfare angle from Wise's film and makes it the central subject ofthe movie. The Wildfire crew is expanded from four experts to five ethnically and discipline-diverse researchers (to make it CSI-familiar--how novel), and they're all sniping unpleasant people--Jeremy Stone (Benjamin Bratt) is a fairweather father/absent husband, who's had a past affair with one of the other crew, and chooses to revive it while the world is supposedly coming to an end--just the kind of guy I want in a crisis. The film-makers play up the ick factor with "Andromeda" expanding its field to drive low inhabitants crazy, and work its way up the food-chain, although the special effects boys peter out at the end and become content to represent the infection as a red optical smudge. The President of the United States becomes a major figure, albeit one who sits around being befuddled, but always has a sage bit of wisdom for each new development. And there's the creepy, snarky reporter who's looking for The Big Story (no matter who it hurts) and he's played by Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) with vacillating priorities.

The central theme—what does a baby have in common with a sterno-drinking bum—is tossed off, ignored, and rendered irrelevent (as are the survivors) in favor of new-science voodoo of worm-holes, time-discrepancies and other space-rot, that, if anybody sat down and thought about it, makes the Andromeda bacillus completely devoid of a point of origin. But hey, if you can combine the original with "
CSI," and plot-elements of Contact, and, yes, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, it should be good enough for an unchoosy Sci-Fi Channel subscriber, one who's happy with the sub-par "original movies" along the lines of "T-REX Mutants!" Somewhere along the way, the broadcast channel got upped to A & E (that stands for "Arts and Entertainment"--it's where you can see "Dog the Bounty Hunter" and "Gene Simmons' Family Jewels," and they must feel snookered.*

It's a nasty, stupid piece of work, done with little care for its viewers or source material. Hopefully, Crichton got some money out of it (he had nothing to do with it, not even producing), so hopefully he can find out why he has a "J" in front of his name now.

With all this new tachnology why do these schmoes insist on re-making GOOD science fiction films (they're also "updating" "The Day The Earth Stood still.")? Why don't they make a better version of "
Damnation Alley," or "Saturn 3," or even Crichton's "Terminal Man?" Those might be worth a try.

* They don't. Trade ads are crowing that ten million souls watched this drek.

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