Michael Crichton ignites a Wildfire – and a career

The Andromeda Strain

You might’ve heard of a little show, ran on NBC for a couple of seasons, by the name of ER.

You might’ve heard of a little film trilogy about dinosaurs run amok, starting with Jurassic Park.

Or a movie called Timeline. Or The Thirteenth Warrior. Or Sphere. Or Twister. Or Congo. Or Disclosure. Or Rising Sun.

And I could go on from there, with film after film either written by the late Michael Crichton or adapted from one of his books (often both).

Well, it all started here: a great SF film of the 70s, The Andromeda Strain (based on the book of the same name). This is the film project that seduced Mr. Crichton away from his medical career and into a Hollywood career that produced at least $2.5 billion in gross revenue.

And this film – along with other early Crichton efforts, such as Westworld and The Terminal Man and Looker – is why, when the rest of the world said, “Oh, look, a dinosaur movie,” I said, “Oh, look, a Michael Crichton movie!” Because this was one of the most memorable science fiction films of the pre-Star Wars 70s, and still holds up great today.

Note: This review is of the 1971 film. There was a miniseries remake in 2008. It might be as good, but I can’t say: I’ve never seen it, and I can’t find it available on streaming. To read more about The Andromeda Strain, click More.

The film, like the book, is a fictional documentary on Wildfire, a secret biological containment and research facility dedicated to studying hypothetical biohazards from space. When a space probe returns to Earth, the hypothetical becomes real, and the Wildfire team sets to work. Most of the story is told in a linear fashion as the research proceeds; but through occasional “flash forwards”, we see the aftermath of the incident, including Congressional hearings and what we hope we learned from the incident. Most of the film is told from the view of Dr. Mark Hall, a young surgeon who volunteered for Wildfire for the stipend it provided, but never expected there to be any actual organisms to study. When the organism code named Andromeda arrives, Hall learns exactly what he volunteered for.

Wildfire is both a team of doctors and also a secret underground facility in the Nevada desert, It is ultra high tech (by 1970 standards), staffed with the latest advances in medical and computer technology. And the film lovingly explores the power of this technology, enough to make an aspiring young geek believe it all could be real (and today, much of it is!). This was one of Crichton’s storytelling strengths (or weaknesses, if your tolerance for gadgetry is low): his ability to look at current technology, extrapolate what might be possible tomorrow, and describe it in ways that sound very plausible to an informed layman. Of course, a real worker in the field would know how much Crichton was making it up. I could easily poke holes in his computer science in Jurassic Park, for example; but he could certainly fool me on the subject of dinosaur DNA! He knew how to make the science fantastic yet nearly tangibly plausible, in ways that both supported and shaped the story. He never threw in implausible pseudo-science that undermined his story and insulted the intelligence of his audience (I’m talking to you, Paul Verhoeven!).

Once inside Wildfire, the story becomes a medical mystery. The doctors have to perform research and experiments to identify and isolate the organism, observe and describe its symptoms, and try to devise a cure – for Andromeda has already wiped out the population of the small town of Piedmont AZ, save for one baby and one old alcoholic. These two mysteriously healthy survivors form part of the web of clues the team must decipher. And the mystery is complicated by the first concrete thing they learn about Andromeda: it mutates rapidly, so what they learn about it today might not be true tomorrow. They have to learn as fast as they can, and apply what they learn as fast as they can, before all their efforts fall apart.

Now if that sounds like a lot of dry shots of doctors bent over microscope slides, well, guess again. First, thanks to the imaginative Wildfire technology, the doctors don’t peer into microscopes: they observe microscopic images on large video monitors, so we can see, too. This technique is now standard on investigator shows like CSI, letting characters interact and argue about what they’re seeing, using the scientific evidence as a visual hook to help the audience follow the debate.

And second: boy, do they argue! These four doctors are all strong-willed, accomplished individuals, each convinced that he or she is the smartest person in the room. They were chosen as the best of the best; but a team of top dogs inevitably has secrets and dominance games – especially under tension.

And third: boy, is there tension! Andromeda has already wiped out Piedmont;, and prevailing winds might soon carry it to Phoenix or maybe Los Angeles, endangering millions. If the Wildfire team can’t find a way to neutralize it soon, the President may have to order the atomic bombardment of the region to sterilize the contamination. So there’s a ticking clock, leading the team to cut back on sleep and live on stimulants, all making them more irritable and more prone to mistakes.

And fourth: boy, do they make mistakes! They make some doozies! These aren’t brilliant, logical Vulcan super geniuses; these are smart, dedicated professionals who are also fallible humans, prone to irritation, arrogance, and vanity. Even as they sometimes rub each other the wrong way, they know they have to work as a team and rely on each other to check their work. When these team checks break down, the result could be death for millions, either through disease or through nuclear annihilation.

And fifth: boy, the nuclear risk is personal for them! As a safety measure to contain any contagion, Wildfire is built overtop of a nuclear bomb. If they lose control of Andromeda, they’ll be at the epicenter of the nuclear blast. With the stress and the pressure and the ticking clock and the freaking nuclear bomb beneath their feet, a looming crisis is almost inevitable!

And sixth: boy, is there a crisis! As a result of both their successes and their mistakes, the team reaches a point of no return. Mark Hall has just one chance to save Wildfire and millions of others, perhaps the whole human race, in what 30 years later is still the most nail-biting film climax I have ever seen.

On a personal note, this film (and the book) played a small part in my eventual career path. Prior to this film, computers in movies and TV were usually depicted one of four ways: big banks of reel-to-reel tapes, big banks of flashing lights (often just Christmas tree lights set in a board), flashing stacks of punch cards (for you young ‘uns:, punch cards were a paper data storage system, where one byte was about half the size of a sheet of paper – this review stored on punch cards would be a stack of cards 14 feet tall, plus 40 feet for the picture), or a bunch of abstract light patterns (as in Star Trek). The computers in this film were realistic. They did things, things we could see and understand. We saw the doctors using them to do work. We saw the computers use state-of-the-art 70s graphics to show us how a computer can help us to visualize data. Heck, this film plus Westworld (another Crichton film) taught me the concept of a “pixel”. With this film, I stopped seeing a computer as a concept or a plot device or (as in many bad films) a malevolent force that must be stopped, and started seeing it as a tool.

The rest of the technology looks equally plausible, at least to this layman. The design of the Wildfire facility was inspired by NASA’s quarantine trailers for returning astronauts. The biohazard investigator suits are similarly inspired by NASA space suits, while the full body physician suits are a cross between space suits and glove boxes. The animal cages designed for exposing and testing subjects make sense. The bio scanners, sterilization measures, and decontamination procedures are convincing (and those are just for the doctors, to keep them from bringing in outside contaminations!). And the multi-level, multi-color-scheme design of the facility looks like it was built by spaceship designers. It doesn’t have quite the futuristic feel it had in 1971, but it still feels like leading edge today.

My advice: run – do not walk – to tubeCore, download The Andromeda Strain, and settle in for an exciting, intelligent film. When I watch it today, it’s still just as tense, still just as gripping and engaging. Some of the technology now seems a bit dated, but a lot of it still feels like something we’ll see in production Real Soon Now. The fallible, flawed characters are still believable today. The potential crisis is as real as ever: how would we cope with a contagion from outer space? And the story is still a rip-roaring medical-mystery-adventure-world-saving roller coaster.

And I think the enduring power of this film is a testament to what you get when you start with a great novel and then – within the time and technology limits of film – faithfully bring it to to the screen (I’m talking to you, Paul Verhoeven!).

You can watchThe Andromeda Strain on Amazon video on demand, rent it from Netflix, or buy it from Amazon.

4 Comments

  1. Posted May 26, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    You make a great case for The Andromeda strain. You sure I could stay awake on it? I fall asleep on Gladiator, but stay wide awake for Fame, the remake.

  2. Martin L. Shoemaker
    Posted May 27, 2010 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    Good question. This film has always held my attention (fascinated me, even); but it is slow moving in spots. The “action” is in the scientific discovery, except for a few tense moments in the middle, and the nail-biting climax.

    I’ve actually never seen Gladiator, so I can’t compare there; and as for Fame… I’m showing my age, I guess; but if it doesn’t have Irene Cara, it’s not Fame for me.

  3. Beth
    Posted June 3, 2010 at 2:35 am | Permalink

    I happen to be re-reading Andromeda Strain now and it is still great but not as gripping a read as Jurassic Park. I wouldn’t bother with the recent remake - on the first day they did a lot of crazy stuff with the story, added a reporter and some conspiracy theories, so I didn’t waste my time on the rest. If someone wants to make a whole new story, fine, just don’t co-opt the name of something with its own perfectly good story already. To co-opt what seems to be one of your catch phrases, I’m talking to you new Robin Hood movie.

    Great review! Thanks!

  4. Martin L. Shoemaker
    Posted June 3, 2010 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Beth,

    I do think Jurassic Park (the book) was probably the peak of Mr. Crichton’s work. All his skills came together in that one. I liked a lot of his later books, but I never quite felt the magic like in that book.

    It sounds like the remake was as bad as I feared. I saw A&E’s remake of The Lathe of Heaven, and was sorely disappointed: twice as long as the original, less than half as good. And the Andromeda Strain remake looked like a similar treatment.

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