The Andromeda Strain poses a fascinating question: Has a lot changed since then or not much at all? It also provides a complicated answer: Yes.
The film, which premiered on March 12, 1971, was based on the first book Michael Crichton published under his own name. The Andromeda Strain launched Crichton into thriller-writer superstardom, while also helping give voice to a new societal fear: the contagion that destroys the world.
The 1969 book was such a success that Universal Studios immediately purchased the rights, and decided to make it into a film. Director Robert Wise was tasked with the job – and for good reason, as he was able to handle both big-budget movies and intimate genre-oriented adventure stories.
After starting as an editor at RKO – he was nominated for an Oscar there for editing Citizen Kane – Wise moved into directing and scored his first big hit with The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951. That movie tells the story of an alien invasion, and was one of the most influential sci-fi films of its decade. Wise soon moved on to mainstream success with things like West Side Story and The Sound of Music, but he was never one to turn down a genre project: He directed the fantastic horror film The Haunting in 1963, and would go on to helm the first film in the Star Trek franchise in 1979.
The story of The Andromeda Strain involves an alien virus brought back to Earth by a satellite that crash-lands near a New Mexico town. Everyone in the town immediately dies, when a pair of scientists in protective gear – Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) and Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson) – are dropped into the scene, they discover that the organism kills people by turning their blood to dust.
Watch a Trailer for ‘The Andromeda Strain’
They grab the satellite and two townspeople who have mysteriously survived, whisking an alcoholic old man and an infant to a secret government laboratory. This facility, which Stone designed, extends beneath the surface of the Nevada desert for six stories, and was built for exactly this purpose. In addition to Stone and Hall, two other scientists are flown in: Dr. Charles Dutton (David Wayne) and Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid). Together, this team descends into the laboratory – stopping at each level to be disinfected in increasingly meticulous ways – then tries to figure out how to stop the deadly organism, which they’ve named the Andromeda Strain.
They manage to figure out that the organism is vulnerable to variation in Ph levels, so the alcohol in the old man’s blood saved him, as did the salinity of the baby’s tears. Another problem erupts, however, before they can put this knowledge to use. It turns out that the organism is prone to constant mutation, and soon evolves into a form that eats away plastic. As rubber seals keeping the virus contained begin to corrode, it is released into the laboratory at large. This initiates another peril: Their lab also holds a nuclear device set up to explode if anything goes wrong, and that’s now been triggered.
Dr. Hall has been given the key to deactivate this system, and he has to race through a system of computer-controlled lasers in order to prevent them all from being incinerated. He does so, and we end with scientists seeding clouds in order to wash the Andromeda Strain from the atmosphere into the Pacific ocean, killing it once and for all.
In many ways, the film is deeply dated. The plot moves slowly, even by the standards of the time. Although the special effects (designed by legendary SFX man Douglas Trumbull, who worked on films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Towering Inferno and Blade Runner) were groundbreaking in 1971, many of them feel kitschy today. Wise’s decision to shoot much of the film in split-screen also has not aged well, coming off as gimmicky rather than cutting edge.
The film’s gender politics also provide a reminder of how much has changed over the decades. Dr. Hall has the only key that can deactivate the nuclear self-destruct sequence because of something Crichton came up with called the “odd-man hypothesis.” The rule states that only single males can can be trusted in a life-or-death situation, since women and married people can’t handle stress.
Watch the laser-turrets scene from ‘The Andromeda Strain’
So, in technical terms, The Andromeda Strain is something of a failure. But in terms of the fears it addresses, the movie remains absolutely contemporary.
Before The Andromeda Strain, the list of fictional things that could end humanity was pretty much limited to the appearance of aliens, and the outbreak of nuclear war. After its appearance, the idea that disaster could come from a tiny, kind-of-alive creature like a virus became a part of our storytelling lore. And then, of course, as so often happens, reality began to imitate fiction and terrifying viruses did emerge – from Ebola and AIDS in the 20th century to the modern era’s coronaviruses.
Because of these threats, The Andromeda Strain still has the ability to unsettle – from the way the film depicts the possibility of a deadly contagion appearing out of nowhere to the hubris of a scientific community which is confident things are under control … until they aren’t.
The tech may have changed since Michael Crichton and Robert Wise gave us their vision of these dangers, but the fear hasn’t.