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When a satellite crashes in New Mexico, a deadly alien organism is unleashed, killing everyone in the small community except a baby and the town drunk. A team of the country's best scientists is quickly massed in a "Wildfire Alert" and directed to an underground biological warfare lab designed to investigate this killer "space germ." In this "hot zone" far beneath the Nevada desert, the scientists discover the Andromeda Strain, a nightmarishly deadly organism capable of replicating at an astronomical rate, turning human blood to powder and killing almost every organism it touches.
At the head of the team is biologist Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) who often finds himself battling as much as cooperating with the brilliant microbiologist who shares his lab, Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid), a feisty, unorthodox scientist who resists the institutional hierarchy. Rounding out the team is the young upstart of the group, bachelor and surgeon Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson), and a grandfatherly pathologist Dr. Charles Dutton (David Wayne). The sleek design of the film's Wildfire lab - reminiscent of the interiors of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - almost places The Andromeda Strain (1971) in a science fiction futureworld of no particular era. But the timeless feeling is shattered when Dutton is whisked away from his home in the middle of the night, and his elderly wife muses that he must be "going to a Love-in!" Such period details, as well as the film's vivid paranoia about the potential dangers of nuclear weapons and the burgeoning threat of biological weapons mark it as seventies sci-fi, just as the hordes of alien invaders in fifties films expressed that era's fears of Communist invasion.
Though The Andromeda Strain feels distinctly low-tech by contemporary sci-fi standards, the Wildfire scientific lab set alone cost more than $300,000 to build, a phenomenal cost for the time. Even more shocking than its - by current standards - puny budget for a sci-fi thriller was the film's wholesome "G" rating upon release, remarkable considering some brief flashes of nudity and some gruesome details of the organism's effect on human corpses.
The author of The Andromeda Strain is Michael Crichton, who is known as the creator of Jurassic Park (1993) and TV's E.R. But these accomplishments are merely the second chapter of this talented and multifaceted novelist's career. During the 1970s he was at the forefront of sci-fi novelists, his work being the foundation of such high-tech thrillers as Coma (1978), which he directed and scripted from Robin Cook's novel, and Westworld (1973), directed by Crichton from his own original story.
Steeped in tension as the four scientists operating in carefully controlled hot zones analyze the characteristics of the organism, moments of comic relief are provided to ease the suspense, like the antics of perpetually on-the-make single guy Dr. Hall, who even flirts with the robotic feminine voice of the Wildfire lab computer. In another amusing bit of social commentary the assembled scientists get a taste of their own medicine when they are poked and prodded and experimented upon like lab rats by the Wildfire computers trying to remove all traces of contaminants.
Though Andromeda Strain director Robert Wise is probably best known for his highly successful, crowd-pleasing musicals West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), he also made a significant mark on the sci-fi genre. In addition to this archetypal seventies sci-fi film, Wise also made one of the classics of fifties science fiction. His film about a friendly alien also carrying a warning about nuclear destruction, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), is considered a landmark work of science fiction and an early expression of Wise's pacifist film sensibility. In 1979 he was at the helm of another influential sci-fi film Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which revived interest in the faded TV series and began a still-continuing stream of films and TV spin-offs.
Producer/Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Nelson Gidding, based on the novel by Michael Crichton
Cinematography: Richard H. Kline
Film Editing: Stuart Gilmore, John W. Holmes
Production Design: Boris Leven
Art Direction: William H. Tuntke
Music: Gil Melle
Special Effects: James Shourt, Douglas Trumbull
Principal Cast: Arthur Hill (Dr. Jeremy Stone), David Wayne (Dr. Charles Dutton), James Olson (Dr. Mark Hall), Kate Reid (Dr. Ruth Leavitt), Paula Kelly (Nurse), George Mitchell (Peter "Gramps" Jackson), Ramon Bieri (Major Arthur Manchek).
C-131m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster