It’s the Movie Scientist Blogathon! Great Scott! We’re looking at good scientists today, and what’s better than saving all of mankind from a mysterious bacteria?
Remember how the Apollo 11 astronauts were put in a mobile quarantine facility to make sure they didn’t bring anything infectious back from the moon? Who hasn’t seen the pictures of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins peeking out through the quarantine window and beaming? They were completely entitled to those big smiles, having only just achieved the most momentous feat in human history. It was a victory for Americans, the world, and science, vindicating NASA above its Russian rivals. Still, people were concerned about contamination from outer space. That same year, Michael Crichton published a novel, The Andromeda Strain, about what might happen if disease could hitch a ride on returning spacecraft. In 1971, it was made into a film, and while it doesn’t feature any big stars, The Andromeda Strain is a compelling movie.
Directed and produced by Robert Wise of Sound of Music and Citizen Kane fame, The Andromeda Strain is structured like a documentary. It begins in Piedmont, Arizona, where a couple of Air Force reconnaisance men are suspicious because the town has shown no signs of life. Even a pilot flying over and scanning the place via infrared doesn’t turn up anything. Finally, the two reconnaisance men head into the town to check it out. Meanwhile, they’re in communication with their superiors at Vanguard Air Force Base in California, who listen to the whole saga unfold. The screams of the two men and then total silence tell them all they need to know, unfortunately, and the Major puts in a call to Washington. The deaths have put a plan called Operation Scoop into motion, and no one can know, least of all the press.
The first thing to do is to call in their crack team of experts to work the problem, and they have to drop whatever they’re doing, no matter what it is. The first and senior of the group, Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill), is pulled out of a party. His poor wife calls her dad, who’s a senator, and everything is so hush-hush, she not only can’t get through, but her line is tapped. The second, Dr. Charles Dutton (David Wayne) is talking to his wife about retiring to Alaska when his grandson comes and tells him about the military men outside. Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid) is pulled out at a critical moment of an experiment she’s conducting. The most awkward moment comes when the fourth member, Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson) is called in just when he’s about to make the first incision in a surgery.
Jeremy and Mark ride a helicopter into Piedmont to assess the situation, and what they find is chilling. Dead bodies lay in various spots in the streets, clearly having died very quickly. One lady even has a bag of groceries next to her. The doctors start peeking in windows, and see people seemingly frozen in time. An old man looks permanently surprised. Another man lays on a floor staring into space. Since it’s the seventies, there’s a hippie laying on another floor, a peace sign around her neck. They also find the town doctor in his office, slumped in his desk chair, eyes fixed on the ceiling. The doctor was on to something, though–he was able to recover a satellite that had fallen on Piedmont before he died. The weirdest thing of all is that there are birds of prey picking at the bodies, but no blood on the wounds. Jeremy and Mark think this is very strange, and Mark cuts the wrist of one of the victims to see what happens. Both men are mystified to see only red powder pour out instead of blood.
Just when they’re about to leave, Jeremy and Mark hear a baby cry, and they go into a house to find a tiny little boy in his crib in the hallway. He’s hungry and scared, but otherwise fine. They immediately bring him out, and right then a grizzled older guy rushes up to them, obviously also not infected with whatever killed Piedmont. There’s room for everyone on the helicopter, so Mark and Jeremy help them aboard.
The other half of the group, Ruth and Charles meet them at their super-secret base out in the Nevada desert. It seems to be an innocuous agricultural station, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Charles leads Ruth into a storage closet, hits a button, and the two of them begin descending down a long elevator shaft. This is only the first of many levels the four of them will have to go through. Each level is color-coded, and each has its own decontamination process–the four scientists have to do everything from full body scans to walking naked through gray sludge to wearing what look like spangly fencing helmets while getting sprayed with white powder. Each level also has its own jumpsuit that corresponds to the color of whatever level it belongs to, and as they go down lower, each suit must be incinerated. Good thing they’re only made out of paper, although they don’t look like it. The whole process takes sixteen hours to complete, until there’s absolutely no chance that anyone will get infected. The environment is so stringent, they don’t even get real food at the lowest level–only supplements and liquid “caffeine,” which couldn’t possibly be coffee, or they would say so.
Once at the securest point, our four scientists have to figure out the who, what, when, where, why and how of this mysterious biohazard. They run tests on monkeys to see how the bacteria spreads. They have to observe the bacteria closeup to see what it looks like, of course, and they have to determine its chemical structure. Furthermore, they have to find out why, of all the people in Piedmont, the only ones to survive were an old man and a young baby.
Mark has the most responsibility of the four, except for Jeremy. As the only unmarried person in the group, Mark is what’s known as the Odd Man. In other words, if something happens to Mark, he doesn’t leave any family or significant others behind, and as such, he’s given the most risky jobs. He has to wear a key that can disengage the self-destruct mechanism in their underground lab, and he’s also the one who works the closest to the Piedmont survivors, except for his assistant, Karen Anson. Mark is sort of a wild card who’s not above flirting with the voice that wakes him up, or with his pretty right-hand lady, but when it counts, he knows how to step up to the plate.
The Andromeda Strain is an effective mixture of sci-fi and Cold War tension, and Robert Wise and Company did themselves proud. If the movie looks familiar, there’s a good reason–the visual effects were done by 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Douglas Turnbull. The set design is the usual claustrophobic rooms and hallways that are so typical of sci-fi films of that era. The characters are static, but that’s because the story is outcome-based. These people aren’t underground for laughs and giggles, or to find new purposes in life–just to figure out what killed Piedmont and how to keep the bacteria from spreading. The movie does give in to political film clichés such as the Generic Officer ordering an underling to get him So-and-So, with or without pounding the desk. In spite of those minor predictabilities, I found myself on the proverbial edge of my seat.
The film is rated G, but I don’t know how this thing swung it, seeing as there’s nudity in it, plus fairly graphic (but obviously fake) shots of dead bodies and scientists cutting into dead bodies. Still, it’s an interesting story with plenty of intrigue, and not too dry, with just enough of what we would today consider 1970s camp.
That’s all for Day One of the Movie Scientists Blogathon. Day Two will focus on Mad Scientists, and in the meantime, Christina and Ruth have more for you at their respective blogs. Hope you enjoyed, and see you tomorrow for Day Two!
This film is available on Amazon.