Thursday, August 2, 2012

LIE #37: “My First Movie” Caused a Great Sickness: Robert Wise’s “The Andromeda Strain”

“Andromeda is perfect for existence in outer space: it consumes everything, it wastes nothing.”

If you stick with it, by its conclusion The Andromeda Strain (1971; Robert Wise) is so exciting that you forget that the story is being told in quasi-documentary flashback.
From the beginning, we know the world doesn’t end—and are reminded routinely with flash-forwards that act like a Greek chorus, but we end up biting our nails nonetheless.
In preparation for this blogathon, I screened the film again (via Nflix Streaming), and it was still exciting.
Director Robert Wise was that good.

The Andromeda Strain is LERNER INTERNATIONAL’s entry into the “My First Movie” blogathon, sponsored by the wonderful film blog Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear.

In scanning the memory banks, I have three distinct “earliest” memories of potential “first” films, and I’m stressing movies that were seen in a theater that I remember.
They were Walt Disney’s Fantasia—but discounted because I’m not sure if I saw the film or only its trailer (I rented the film last year, and I swear I didn’t recognize it);
George Lucas’ THX-1138 (1971)—which I absolutely remember seeing in a theater on its original release—especially the chase between “futurist” Formula 1 racers, and then the robot cops in a sidecar motorcycle! But thrown out because of the horrible job Lucas did “restoring” it for its re-release in 2004—that was a damn embarrassment. And Lucas won’t release the original 1971 version to DVD: Grrrrrrrr!

Which leaves The Andromeda Strain—and I specifically remember the film’s ending, with the computer graphics overloading and the warning signal “601” flashing on the screen over and over again.
Even if it wasn’t the first, The Andromeda Strain is a great movie, crafted with precision, and a definite favorite. The film was on ABC’s Sunday Night Movie frequently during my subsequent childhood—and I bet I watched it every time. (Meanwhile, I have absolutely no intention of ever viewing the mini-series remake that I’ve heard so many bad things about; I’m not even interesting for comparison value.)

[See that hexagon in the poster to the left? That was the shape of the original green vinyl record—now a valuable rarity! Read the memories of the man behind the album’s marketing HERE]

“Hell of a way to run a hospital!”

Released by Universal in 1971, The Andromeda Strain takes one weird premise (killer space germ), and with no histrionics (beyond killer space germ, that is), logically applies the scientific method—to a modern-day audience, almost to the point of monotony.

Hardly a whiz-bang space opera, this flick is almost Eastern European in its deliberate pacing, but it’s really about respecting and trusting its audience enough with keeping up with the volume of details and data.

In addition to all the obvious influences Kubrick’s 2001 had on cinema—especially the science fiction genre—one that is almost forgotten is that it allowed filmmakers crafting more personal or offbeat visions to take their time.
Not necessarily be long in length, but to have moments where they could “stop and smell the roses.” Early-1970s films like Silent Running, Phase IV, Z.P.G. and even the efficient actioner A Boy and His Dog give themselves breathing room,
and by concentrating on “how it’s done,”
The Andromeda Strain does the same.

Wise’s movie also brings to mind two other Universal releases: Carpenter’s The Thing, and Jack Arnold’s The Monolith Monsters (1957). In all three, there is isolation, infection, potential global destruction, a mostly logical examination of the situation, and a really weird organism from outer space—something far, far removed from the boring bipeds routinely close encountered in nearly all sci-fi.

Based on Michael Crichton’s best-seller (the first of many), the film had an already high recognition factor that would help producer-director Robert Wise when he proceeded to cast recognizable, but hardly famous actors in the leads, instead of “stars”—it increases the tension when there are “no-names” around: they could get killed at any moment, unlike a “star,” who can only get it in the end.  

The complete financial and critical disaster of his previous film, 1968’s Star!, must have been an unnerving influence on the director, as well.
That bomb was after an almost unheralded streak of winners. Honestly, Wise was batting 1.000 with critics and audiences alike for roughly a decade, while making about one movie per year, some of them incredibly complicated mega-productions: from 1958’s incredible submarine war movie Run Silent, Run Deep; to the innovative and ultra-bleak noir Odds Against Tomorrow; to West Side Story, to The Haunting, to The Sound of Music, to The Sand Pebbles. (Let’s not forget he helmed The Day the Earth Stood Still back in 1951.) Whew!

Before he became a director, Wise edited both Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons for Welles, and then one of my other favorite 1940s films: The Devil and Daniel Webster.

Second verse never the same as the first with this man—The Andromeda Strain was 180-degrees in the opposite direction from his disastrous sophomore teaming with Julie Andrews for a musical.

As much as Star! had glitz and glamour, with total artifice, Wise’s next film would be as technically accurate as possible while covering all aspects of its scientific investigation, including grim and nearly-heartbreaking scenes of test animal “deaths.” [Cue Peter Cook soundbyte from Bedazzled: “Julie Andrews!” ZAP!] (Don’t worry, no animals were blah-blah-blah. But they were tortured for your entertainment.)

Plotwise, The Andromeda Strain shares straightforwardness similar to that in Them!, as well: One strange thing happens, and a group of experts is formed to deal with the problem, only with the possible tools at hand at that moment. Eventually the “problem” is neutralized, through a mess of legwork and elbow grease.
You see, it always bugged me that in Gojira (a.k.a. Godzilla, the King of the Monsters), the monster—already a damn fantastic creation—has to be stopped by another fantastic creation: Dr. Serazawa’s Oxygen Destroyer. It’s all fantasy; man’s ingenuity has nothing to do with it, just lazy screenwriting. (Why couldn’t Gojira have ended with them dropping another A-bomb? Why not show the true horrors of Hiroshima’s victims through the flaming death struggles of a giant lizard?)

The Andromeda Strain is the farthest thing from “magic”: it’s grinding—yet utterly fascinating; this movie was made for kids who grew up on PBS’s NOVA science show, and who as adults later enjoy the show How It’s Made: Wise’s film is experiments, tests, tests, experiments—meanwhile, the space germ might be spreading and mutating

[Above: Examples of the typography used in the excellent titles for The Andromeda Strain, credited to Universal Title and Attila de Lado; equal to the work of Maurice Binder if not Saul Bass, and a nice recap of the film, if you know what to look for]

Andromeda starts with a dead town and a nightmare in sound, and only keeps getting better.
After the Scoop VII satellite crash-lands near Piedmont, Nevada, the local town doctor opens it, releasing an extraterrestrial microorganism that kills by coagulating the blood, turning it to powder almost instantly.
Biohazard suit-wearing scientists discover only two survivors: the town drunk and a screaming infant.

The scientists are with Project Wildfire, an Area 51-like secret installation, fully equipped to deal with any potential non-earth infectious material. The film got the technical support of the Jet Propulsion Lab and CalTech, so the Wildfire set is the tops in state-of-the-art lab equipment (put together by production designer Boris Leven), all of it shot in loving detail by cinematographer Richard H. Kline (who also shot Bronson’s The Mechanic, then Soylent Green and many others).

Being so serious—almost grim, the film balances that out in an almost schizophrenic fashion via its look:
The photography is an important element to the movie’s borderline-hallucinogenic/hysteric mood. The Andromeda Strain is inadvertent psychedelia—a bum trip for hippies, maybe, but a stone groove for engineers!
Strange visuals are provided via X-ray footage, extreme close-ups, oscillation waves, split-screen, multiple images in monitors, thermographic images, and electron microscopy representing the Andromeda molecule splitting and dividing and growing: bizarro-trippy images created by special effects guru Douglas Trumbull via his slit-scan method.

Matte painting wizard Albert Whitlock provided several shots, especially for the climax set in the core: Whitlock extended it, making it seem larger (see below). Wise would use the matte painter again, as chief visual effects supervisor on the underrated The Hindenburg in 1975.

The “unnatural” feeling of The Andromeda Strain is kept alive through great use of split-focus diopter camerawork.
Anti-realism in the heart of so much technical realism is aided by the color-coded sections of Wildfire our lead scientists must path through as they are steadily decontaminated—like Antonioni making sci-fi, or a Dino De Laurentiis space opera, adding to the cognitive disconnect.

And I want one of those xenon lamp helmets! (see right)

After finding out that Wildfire was primarily a bioweapons R&D center, one of the scientists realizes that the Air Force was “looking for the ultimate biological weapon,” that Project Scoop brought Andromeda here on purpose.
Andromeda is hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, the four basic units of life, but in a crystalline form, with no amino acids, functioning, says the lead scientist, like “a miniature nuclear reactor” (so when it came in contact with the townspeople, it instantly consumed their water—hydrogen and oxygen—and reduced their blood to dust). If controllable, it certainly would be a nifty bug to have in the arsenal…

Not only is Gil Melle’s electronic score a nerve-wracking achievement (he later composed the calm-to-nightmarish theme for Kolchak: The Night Stalker), but the constant background audio adds a nice counterpoint (“Negative oxide reaction in chamber 12,” and the like) and keeps the audience interested.
The big joke is how the various intercom announcements transform into the calm but relentless female voice of the doomsday clock. (An ending I think Crichton “borrowed” from the movie Goldfinger.)

My only gripe: The breakdown in communication in The Andromeda Strain is pretty lame, really pushing my suspension of disbelief, and honestly, I only overlook it because the rest of the flick is so suspenseful and beautiful to look at. Had this not been an “A” project, getting top-dollar Hollywood value, I might not be as forgiving.

While The Andromeda Strain is now the film I’ve decided to be “My First Film,” it was not the first film I was actually taken to.

According to my mom, that honor goes to Peter Brooks’ excellent adaptation of The Lord of the Flies. It was a few months after I was born, and she’d been hired to write the Spanish subtitles for the film’s release in Latin America and Spain. Mom took me to the screening room, fed me, and then I was laid down to sleep in the aisle in a bassinette.
I first actually saw The Lord of the Flies 13 years later on PBS; but anyone who wishes to speculate on the subliminal Skinner Box-like effects of having a newborn listen to such an intense film over and over again can go right ahead and leave a comment.
Now I should probably watch it again…


  1. Earliest remembrance of a proper movie experience: 1968, Bonnie and Clyde, and Bullitt, at the Capitol Drive-In, East 14th Street, DSM, IA. Next would be Planet of the Apes opening for Bullitt at a drive-in, possible the same one. (i guess my dad wanted to see Bullitt again!)

    I have not seen or read The Andromeda Strain. I don't think i've ever made it through THX-1138. But i trust Wise more than Lucas, who's proven himself an artless hack. I credit Lucas with aiding in the deterioration of childhood imagination, inquisitiveness, and desire to interpret reality. He is a pestilence. Wise, on the other hand, has many films which invite thoughtful reflection!

    I will check out The Strain, based upon your investment. (I'm not sure how The Sound of Music can be considered 'disastrous', but that is another topic.)

  2. 'inquisitiveness' and 'desire to interpret reality' are the same, i guess. I was grabbing at something i couldn't reach; a third point that has escaped me.

  3. I should begin by admitting I’m a bit ignorant regarding the entire “science fiction” genre. I’ve never seen “The Andromeda Strain,” but when it aired on TCM recently I caught portions of the film. I have seen, however, “Silent Running”, which was a rather profound experience, in a “Star Wars” alternative fashion. I was also recently introduced to Tarkovsky’s “Solaris”, which I assume falls in the category of your “Eastern European” reference (yes? no?). A provocative take on film I’m persuaded to give another try (and I’m all sorts of impressed when a writer can work in an oblique reference to a Skinner box).

  4. Thanks for sharing your memories with us Ivan! I haven't seen The Andromeda Strain yet but I am familiar with the work of Robert Wise. He is probably one of the most versatile directors ever when it comes to the many genres he tackled.
    And I agree that there were some interesting science fiction films in the post-2001:A Space Odyssey/Planet of the Apes pre-Star Wars era.

  5. Fantastic piece, Ivan. How a film that's basically a visual translation of reading a stereo instruction manual can be that good is proof there are still some mysteries out there that can't be explained and, yes, Robert Wise is THAT good. Score another one for sober sci-fi, too. I failed to mention in my write up that another childhood movie memory was a trip to the drive in where I saw all the Planet of the Apes sequels back to back to back. That means I saw the end of the world, a triple ape-icide, and the fall of mankind in one sitting. Blew my young brain to smithereens.

  6. Everyone, thank you for the comments!
    Otto: I wasn't dissing Sound of Music (although I love Slavoj Zizek's interpretation of it:
    RVC & WBK: I think that in many people's minds, Wise's blockbuster megahits success overshadows his creative side. Like Otto Preminger and Joseph Losey, I think it may be time for a revival of interest in Wise's films. ("triple ape-icide" makes me chuckle...)
    Gypsy: I think Silent Running is very moving metaphor sci-fi, as opposed to hard science--I mean, what sort of horrible, polluted fascist Earth would throw its forests into orbit--and then schedule them to be nuked! Yipes! I think Solaris 1971 is set at Tarkovsky's pace more than anyone else's. But I wonder if in his vast R&D for 2001, that fab Stanley K. screened such Eastern Bloc space movies like Ikarie XB-1, Planet of Storms, The Silent Star or others, and he realized that, "Hey, I don't have to rush this like I'm Buck Rogers or George Pal; I can appreciate the cosmos."

  7. Damn! Excellent write-up! I love Robert Wise. But I can't say that I ever saw this particular film...I'm gonna have to change that! Thanks for participating!

  8. Greetings Fellow Blogathoners!
    I've done it--
    LERNER INTERNATIONAL has posted its first “Film Test,” the “Favorite That’s Not” Quiz—in other words, you’re favorite film that’s not ____.
    Only 21 questions, very genre-centric and lots of fun!
    Please participate! It’s only a hyperlink away!
    Thank You!