The great director Robert Wise will probably be forever remembered
for such popular musicals as WEST SIDE STORY and SOUND OF MUSIC even
though he does have some significant science fiction films to his
credit, including STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE and THE DAY THE EARTH
In 1971 Wise directed the first film adaptation of a Michael
Crichton novel, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN. The film's screenwriter, Nelson
Gidding, has had a particularly mediocre career, including such
unmemorable films as BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and THE MUMMY LIVES.
Nevertheless, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN's staging and scripting give it an
eerie documentary feel that works perfectly.
The setup for the movie is that a United States satellite crashes
into an isolated desert town. On-board the satellite is a tiny organism
from outer space that instantly kills everyone in town except an old
drunk and a crying baby. The show's conundrum is what is the common
thread that saved these two disparate individuals.
Men in protective gear are sent to survey the scene and determine
what has happened. The only thing they are sure of is that the organism
from space is responsible and that death occurs by turning their
victim's blood into powder.
This first and most frightening part gives way to the second where
deep underground in the world's cleanest environment, four scientists
rush to find the cause and the cure for the greatest disaster to have
ever struck earth.
Arthur Hill in one of his finest performances ever plays the team's
lead scientist, Dr. Jeremy Stone. Dr. Stone wants all procedures
followed carefully and no short-cuts taken just because they are under
pressure. When the strain has them all about to crack, he relents and
becomes more willing to cut corners in their experiments.
David Wayne plays the team's wise old man, Dr. Charles Dutton.
James Olson is the team's handsome, young Dr. Mark Hall. Since Dr. Hall
is the only single member of the crew, he gets to carry the key that can
disarm the underground station's self-destruct system. They discuss in
detail the scientific experiments that proved that a single person will
be the most rational user of the key. Presumably a married person might
stop the self-destruct for some selfish reason having to do with his
As the odd woman out, Kate Reid plays the only female member of the
group, Dr. Ruth Leavitt. Carefully casting an exceedingly homely and
pudgy woman, the focus stays firmly on her technical abilities and
leaves aside the usual love interest that most scripts seem obliged to
include. Dr. Leavitt, as it turns out, has some yet-to-be-discovered
limitations, but scientifically she is a valuable member of the team.
The beauty of the script and the direction is the contrast of the
fast paced demands placed on the researchers with the meticulousness of
their experiments. They talk and argue like scientists whereas
audiences are used to expensive actors showing off their emotions at
every turn. One might criticize Wise's presentation as dull, but to me
it was brilliantly realistic and totally captivating. Every twist and
turn in the show draws you more and more into the story. The ending is
arguably a bit too neat, but works nevertheless.
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN runs 2:11. It is rated PG for mature themes
and would be fine for kids around nine and up.
Copyright © 1998 Steve Rhodes