When virtually all of the residents of Piedmont, New Mexico, are found dead after the return to Earth of a space satellite, the head of the US Air Force’s Project Scoop declares an emergency. Many years prior to this incident, a group of eminent scientists led by Dr. Jeremy Stone advocated for the construction of a secure laboratory facility that would serve as a base in the event an alien biological life form was returned to Earth from a space mission. Stone and his team – Drs. Dutton, Leavitt and Hall – go to the facility, known as Wildfire, and try to first isolate the life form while determining why two people from Piedmont (an old wino and a six-month-old baby) survived. The scientists methodically study the alien life form unaware that it has already mutated and presents a far greater danger in the lab, which is equipped with a nuclear self-destruct device should it manage to escape.
he 1970s were a time before some of the “intelligentsia” of American culture began to abandon rationality and reject science on pseudo-ethical grounds. Unsurprisingly, then, 1970s sci-fi is often better informed by science than the sci-fi of later decades, and it is also often more thoughtful and intelligently written. The Andromeda Strain is one of the best hardcore sci fi epics from a decade which brought us such genre classics as 2001, Solyaris, Silent Running, and the original Rollerball. Unlike most of these films, however, Andromeda Strain does not strain believability beyond its bounds, nor does it indulge in metaphysical tangentializing or philosophical moralizing.
Developed from what I consider to be Michael Crichton’s best book, the Andromeda Strain takes its cue directly from the hard realism of that book, along with its documentary style and scientific background research. Though aspects of the plot defy biological probability, if not law, almost the entire film is plausible. Also borrowed from Crichton’s writing is the general point the film attempts to make – one which is present in nearly all of Crichton’s work – that along with technological advance comes risk. Fortunately, however, this story does not reach the near-paranoid levels of technophobia which sometimes appear in later works.
A great ensemble cast full of not easily recognized character actors represent a team of scientists called together to contain and manage a deadly virus-like organism which has arrived on a crashed space research probe. The virus has already wiped out an entire town, and now the scientists must work at a breakneck, sleepless, pace to determine what the organism is, how it spreads and grows, and how it can be killed or contained. Their only major clues, it seems, are an old man and a baby who survived the initial outbreak. To avoid spoilers, I will avoid any further details regarding the plot.
The only aspect of the film which really seems dated is the strange electronic soundtrack, which, at times, seems more derivative of 1950s sci-fi than more modern stuff. Suffice to say that this is one of the best uses of the ‘as-it-happens’ documentary film-making style. The entire film is delivered in a very refreshingly straightforward manner, with believable dialog, actors that look like real people, and a pace that builds constantly from start to finish.