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The Andromeda Strain (1971) Blu Ray (Arrow)

A virus threatens humanity

This adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name starts out with a team of soldiers investigating the crash-landing of a satellite in the vicinity of a small town called Piedmont in New Mexico. When they arrive, they are shocked to discover that the place is littered with dead bodies. Soon afterwards, they too succumb to whatever is lurking in the area.

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

The government declares a state of emergency and drafts in four scientists to investigate a potential alien organism which may have been brought down with the satellite. Their names are Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill), Dr. Charles Dutton (David Wayne), Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson) and Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid). Stone and Hall don their hazmat suits and visit the town, where they find the satellite’s opened holding compartment along with just two human survivors: an old man and a baby. They take all of these to an underground desert lab known as Wildfire, briefly get acquainted with the other two scientists and set out trying to get to the bottom of whatever is killing people before it can spread and threaten the entire human race.

Watch a trailer:

The suspense gradually ratchets up here

Although The Andromeda Strain was based on a successful novel that made Michael Crichton into a household name, Universal clearly took some significant gambles in bringing it to the big screen. The studio spent a then-substantial $6.5 million on a film with more talk than action, set largely within the claustrophobic confines of an underground bunker and featuring a conspicuous lack of major stars in its cast (even top-billed Arthur Hill was generally considered to be a recognisable character actor rather than a bankable name). Nonetheless, while contemporary reviews were somewhat mixed, it did end up being moderately successful at the box office.

When viewed today, it’s a chillingly effective film even if it does require a little bit of patience on the viewer’s part. Director Robert Wise’s slow, deliberate pacing predates his later Star Trek: The Motion Picture; he even spends quite a few minutes lingering over the technical details of a rigorous decontamination process that most other filmmakers would opt to get over within mere seconds. Unlike in the aforementioned film, however, the ultimate payoff is genuinely worth the effort.

“Slow” doesn’t necessarily mean “dull”, either. The lengthy sequence where they visit the infected town and come across one lifeless corpse after another is a quietly chilling piece of cinema. The colour-coded production design and believable technological features of the Wildfire facility amount provide some fascinating background details. The characters are well-developed and have their own distinctive viewpoints and philosophies, making for a number of gripping and occasionally humorous personality clashes.

The suspense ratchets up by increments as the stakes get ever higher and a proposed method of getting rid of the alien virus turns out to be one that threatens to exacerbate the threat. The finale is an agonising edge-of-your-seat affair which makes classic use of some distorted lens effects. While some of the early camera trickery (the intermittent use of split screen and split diopter work) feel a little gimmicky and self-conscious at times, this climactic scene is absolutely spot-on in its visual approach.

The Andromeda Strain is an engrossing movie which has lost none of its impact in modern times when there perpetually seems to be some biological threat or other just around the corner.

Runtime: 131 mins

Dir: Robert Wise

Script: Nelson Gidding, based on a novel by Michael Crichton

Starring: Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson, Kate Reid, Paula Kelly, George Mitchell, Ramon Bieri

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

The visuals look extremely sharp, clear and full of colour - an unadulterated treat for the eyes, in fact. The sound is equally impressive, especially Gil Mellé’s haunting avant-garde soundtrack.

Extras

Audio Commentary by Bryan Reesman

The New York entertainment journalist gabs along enthusiastically here. He reveals that author Michael Crichton used some of his knowledge gained from medical school when writing the original story. Crichton himself makes a very brief cameo appearance (his only one in any feature film) during the surgery scene where the character of Dr. Hall is introduced.

As well as going through the usual resumes for cast and crew, Reesman provides us with plentiful background details about the production. A town called Shafter in Texas was used for the infected fictional locale of Piedmont and the actors pretending to be corpses were hired locals. Around $30 million worth of real-life technology (including the robotic arms seen in the Wildfire lab) was borrowed for use in the film. However, the computer graphics seen on the monitor displays weren’t real; they were mocked up by Douglas Trumbull using some elaborate lighting work. A scene involving a rat and monkey succumbing to the virus was created by suffocating real-life animals with carbon monoxide. Nonetheless, animal lovers can take some small comfort in the fact that the on-set American Humane Association personnel subsequently saved from perishing by rapid blasts of oxygen.

A New Strain of Science Fiction

Kim Newman provides us with his usual enjoyable genre-conscious examination. This time, he looks into the origins and historical precedents of the “disease movie”, taking a whistle-stop tour through the likes of Panic in the Streets (1950), The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), The Satan Bug (1965), Rabid (1977) and Contagion (2011). He also examines the film version of The Andromeda Strain and its chilly, detached style (which was very typical of early 1970’s screen science fiction), as well as Michael Crichton’s simultaneous paranoia and fetishism in connection with technology.

Making the Film

An archive featurette from 2001 featuring interviews with director Robert Wise, screenwriter Nelson Gidding, author Michael Crichton and special effects creator Douglas Trumbull. It also has some behind-the-scenes footage and snippets of an old promo with Crichton himself talking to the camera.

Wise (who describes the film as being more “science fact” than “science fiction”) reveals that he chose relatively unknown actors because he wanted audiences to feel like they were watching a documentary with real people rather than a movie. Turnbull talks about how he created a few of the effects. He reveals that he underbid his job and almost went bankrupt trying to come up with some of the elaborate visuals. Notably, the large bunker core set took 6 months to build and necessitated digging up the studio floor to accommodate its size. Even then, it was made to look taller than it was via a matte painting created by Albert Whitlock.

A Portrait of Michael Crichton

It’s another 2001 featurette, this time with Michael Crichton who discusses how he came up with the idea behind his novel The Andromeda Strain. He reveals that he always wanted to be a writer but knew that very few people could support themselves purely by the pen. Hence, he studied medicine and continued to writer under pseudonyms (John Lange and Jeffrey Hudson) so that his peers wouldn’t find out who he was.

He came up with the idea behind The Andromeda Strain during his studies when he saw a footnote in an academic book written by George Gaylord Simpson stating that “science fiction writers have never written about organisms that might be found in the upper atmosphere”.

The extras are rounded out by a .pdf shooting script, trailers, an image gallery and a collector’s booklet.

Overall:

The Andromeda Strain is a haunting and slow-burning gem, superbly presented here by Arrow Video.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆

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