Putting Out Fire: The Andromeda Strain (1971) on Blu-ray
“Sorry, I don’t go in for science fiction.”
Before Westworld. Before Jurassic Park. Before that movie where Tom Selleck fights mechanical spiders. The Andromeda Strain was the first time a novel by Michael Crichton was adapted to the big screen.
Crichton’s name wasn’t what drew me to this Blu-ray, though. For that, look no further than director Robert Wise.
While Wise is probably best known as the director of some famous musicals (The Sound of Music; West Side Story) or even other science fiction films (The Day the Earth Stood Still; Star Trek: The Motion Picture), I knew him from his very earliest films with producer Val Lewton; Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher, not to mention his 1963 version of The Haunting, which remains one of my favorite haunted house flicks.
On The Andromeda Strain, Wise was joined by screenwriter Nelson Gidding, who had previously worked with him on The Haunting and others. The result is a film that I have seen called “the antithesis of the modern blockbuster,” which I think is both accurate and inaccurate at once.
After all, this is adapted from a Crichton novel, so the structure is pretty much exactly that of a modern blockbuster: A potentially global threat manifests itself and a handful of people who have just the right qualifications for the job (all of them American, of course) work tirelessly to haul humanity back from the brink of annihilation.
What sets The Andromeda Strain apart from its contemporary relatives is that the band of heroes working to save the day aren’t soldiers or fighter pilots or even politicians; they are all middle-aged scientists.
And not discredited crackpots who turn out to have been right all along, either. Respected experts at the top of their fields. And with one dramatic exception, all of the “action” in the film is mostly just them doing fairly mundane science, albeit with extremely high stakes, so expect lots of shots of people looking at monitors and adjusting microscopes.
It is this meticulousness that really sets Andromeda apart. While there are a few lasers before all is said and done, there aren’t any explosions, and the science is, if not accurate, then at least all very straight-faced. (It may also be accurate, too, or may have been in 1971. I’m not a scientist.)
In fact, when the movie was released, a study guide was commissioned by Universal and distributed to high schools to help teachers use the film in their classes. This study guide is reproduced in the booklet that accompanies the new Arrow Video Blu-ray, and, of course, when I saw it, I immediately thought of Signal Horizon.
While The Andromeda Strain has the skeleton of a disaster film, much of it plays out like a procedural. We watch people watching screens intently, going through step after step of sterilization, interacting with things only through layers of containment.
How do you keep such a hands-off movie interesting, let alone thrilling? While some may debate whether or not Wise accomplishes the latter, and certainly you need to have a patience for these kinds of meticulous “grown up” movies in order to really enjoy Andromeda Strain, the former seems undeniable, thanks to an array of tools that Wise has for the job, starting with the Oscar-nominated set design.
According to that aforementioned study guide, the Wildfire lab, which serves as the setting for most of the film, was patterned after NASA’s real-life receiving lunar lab in Houston, Texas. The result is a top-secret, five-level underground facility hidden beneath a USDA agricultural research center in the Nevada desert. Each level of the facility is a color-coded ring that wouldn’t look at all out of place in 2001 or an episode of Star Trek.
Besides the set design, The Andromeda Strain also received an Oscar nod for film editing. The booklet that accompanies the Blu-ray refers to the film’s split-screen effects as “a rare stylistic misstep,” yet it seems unreasonable to assume that they didn’t go at least some distance towards that Academy Award nomination.
Another tool to help keep The Andromeda Strain ticking along is its unorthodox soundtrack. Composed by Gil Mellé, who also worked on such classic horror TV shows as Night Gallery and Kolchak, the score for The Andromeda Strain is composed mostly of the beeps, boops, and whirrs of early computers. According to the booklet, Wise advised Mellé to “avoid any sounds that called to mind actual instruments.” If it sounded too much like music, Mellé was supposed to cut it out.
Surprisingly, for a movie that was designed to be cutting-edge in 1971, The Andromeda Strain doesn’t feel as dated as many science fiction movies that have been made since. This may be because it isn’t attempting to portray a far-flung future, but a possible present, where “present” includes 1971.
In addition to discussion topics, the study guide contains some behind-the-scenes information on the film, including a cold-bloodedly casual revelation that may make The Andromeda Strain a little difficult for modern animal lovers to watch.
“The animals in this film did not die,” the study guide assures us, referring to the lab animals which are exposed to the titular strain of alien microbes. “Their oxygen was briefly cut off during the shooting, and a team of physicians hurriedly revived them after each ‘take.’” Probably not an explanation that would fly today.
The Andromeda Strain is also a reminder that, along with our ideas about the ethical treatment of screen animals, movie ratings have changed since 1971, too. Given its depiction of many, many dead bodies, some of whom died by suicide, not to mention its apocalyptic stakes and repeated discussion of nuclear options, it seems unlikely that The Andromeda Strain would get by with its “G” rating if it were released today.
Ultimately, The Andromeda Strain’s attempt at straight-faced science keeps it from ever venturing into the weird fictional extravagances that are our bailiwick here at Signal Horizon, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some moments of cosmic horror to be had.
Mellé’s score is always disconcerting, and as the scientists coolly discuss the possibility that intelligent life in outer space may be so dissimilar to terrestrial life that we wouldn’t even recognize it as life at all, it’s difficult to deny that cosmic themes are in play.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.