Because the Future is Fun

Remembering… The Andromeda Strain (1971)

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dbm000343dOfficial synopsis
After a satellite crashes near a New Mexico village, the local residents begin dying out, the victims of a killer disease. By the time a team of scientists have arrived to investigate, the only survivors are an old tramp and an infant child. The team transfer them to an underground lab and work around the clock to identify the virus – which, it transpires, is somehow connected to an Earth bacteria-warfare project.

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Review
The late Michael Crichton’s name is back in the online discussion of cinema with the release of another Jurassic franchise entry, this time in conjunction with ubergeek studio Legendary.  However, perhaps unsurprisingly most of the talk revolves around director of the first two Steven Spielberg, and the SFX of those films, rather than creator Crichton. This is a shame, because the shadow Crichton casts over science fiction on the page as well as on screen is something well worth talking about, and arguably more influential than director Spielberg’s. This is why here on Dragondark this week we’re taking a look back at where it all started for Crichton, looking at the English-friendly German blu-ray of an acknowledged classic of the genre in both formats, The Andromeda Strain.

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This was Crichton’s second novel under his own name while still at med school, although the first to be published as such; he had already published five or six adult adventure paperbacks under the pseudonym John Lance to pay his way through his medical training. His medical mystery book A Case In Need was published under the name Jeffery Hudson, and was optioned to be filmed by famous director Blake Edwards. Flying cross-country to work with the screenwriter for that film, as well as winning an Edgar for the book which he accepted in person, seem to have made him reach a decision:  he decided to forgo the career of a medic for that of a novelist, choosing to work with famed editor Bob Gottlieb at published Alfred A. Knopf in order to build his career. Neither of them expected The Andromeda Strain’s brand of realistic SF to make waves, with Gottlieb predicting a run of only two thousand copies. Instead Hollywood came a-knocking, and not just for anybody; Universal wanted to option it for legendary director Robert Wise.

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Wise is another unsung hero of our favourite genres, with most of the wider appreciation of him focuses on his mainstream successes with musicals West Side Story and The Sound of Music or his role as editor on Citizen Kane. While seemingly adept at every genre he turned his hand to, he nevertheless contributed significantly to our beloved SF once a decade for three with The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, while also making one of the greatest horror films of all time with The Haunting, a big-screen adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House. One can argue auteur theory until one is blue in the face, but it is an undisputable fact that much of Wise’s success was built on his good taste in collaborators, who this time round included screenwriter Nelson Giddings (they had worked together three times at that point, and would work together again after this one), production designer Boris Leven (a five-time collaborator who won an Oscar for his work on West Side Story, and would be nominated again for Strain), and assistant director Ridgeway Fellow (three-time collaborator). Several newcomers to his command would include future significant genre names Douglas Trumbull on VFX (coming off 2001) and jazzer/composer Gils Mellé.

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The story itself is an expert blend of procedural thriller, horror and classic hard SF, taking such a matter-of-fact approach to blood, nudity, death and politics that the latter elements often come as quite a shock to modern viewers who have become jaded with the sensationalised presentation of them (unbelievably the film got a G rating from the MPAA!). An additional shock is the realisation of just how much of the story on the page and on screen is completely fictionalised. Crichton did research of course, reading a lot of scientific reports and papers to find the language and structure for the book, as well as using his own med school reading, but ultimately the procedure, language and xenobiological extrapolation came from Crichton’s own mind. Giddings would keep almost all of this intact in his then-unique cinescript, which took an original script and combined it with graphics and images (working with the production designer for the film to discover what was actually physically possible for the production to achieve) to give a greater visual experience for those reading this blueprint for the upcoming film. Wise and his team would bring as much realism as they could to the film version, including borrowing or leasing privately-owned cutting-edge technical equipment from companies like Dupont to use on set. Trumbull was struck in particular by the waldo-esque remote arms normally used in nuclear stations, which would lead to all sorts of innovations in SFX over the coming decade. Actors had to be trained on some of these, while the crew had to figure out how to shoot closed-circuit TV successfully on film. The film is as important for its technical achievements and innovations as for its creative ones within the genre.

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Those latter achievements include making a serious SF film at the end of the sixties with realistic or at least believably recognisable scientific characters and settings, to some degree building on the mood and approach of the just-released Arthur C. Clarke adaptation 2001: A Space Odyssey (Crichton actually modelled the four leading characters on actual scientists he was aware of; apparently one of them recognised himself in the actor’s performance when he saw the film!); gender-swapping a character going from page to screen, thus putting in the public eye a more accurate representation of gender in the scientific community at the time, and in the process creating the most interesting character on-screen in the film nearly a decade before Alien did the same; using in-camera dioptres, multiple split-screen work and careful design to tell the story in as visual a manner as possible, thus side-stepping concerns that the audience would be unable to relate to the lead characters; and extending the work of folks like Trumbull to create ground-breaking effects in an era long before computing power would become available for as trivial a use as entertainment effects work. This was a key film in making a genre that had become laughable across the fifties into the sixties into something the public would take as seriously as readers of the literary genre, along with Planet of the Apes in 1968 and the aforementioned 2001 in 1969. While made in 1970 and released in 1971, the film is still very much of the previous decade in so many ways, yet it already prefigures future SF films with the many story elements that have become cliché since due to everyone borrowing them:  the team of scientific specialists put together Mission: Impossible-style; one of them hiding a secret that could cause bigger problems later on when the team need that person; the Godzilla-esque conflict between scientists versus the military & politicians; the early explanation to the audience of the device that will constitute the “ticking clock” later on; and the proto-disaster movie stakes of a greater threat to a wider public if our heroes don’t succeed.

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Crichton, who was on set during filming and has a cameo in the final cut, was clearly learning from the whole process and experience; he would go on to build some of these elements into his formula on the page and on-screen, as quickly as from his next genre book after The Andromeda Strain, 1972’s The Terminal Man. While this was also optioned and adaptation began, the author stepped up to direct an original script with 1973’s seminal Westworld, which he effectively rewrote as Jurassic Park. Later on he would shoot both original scripts and adapt both his and other writers’ books, but along the way he would refine his formula on the page to the point where many book reviewers felt he was writing draft scripts rather than novels. Never let it be said that blockbuster-era Hollywood isn’t skilled at gutting a book thoroughly in adapting it however, meaning that both his Jurassic Park books still manage to have more depth and interest than either film version. Even his last filmed original script, for 1996’s Twister, bears all these hallmarks that derive from The Andromeda Strain, and this is before we start looking around at other books (Doug Preston and Lincoln Childs’ works, Lionel Davidson’s Kosminsky Heights) and films (Deep Impact, Armageddon, The Core, Outbreak). Re-reading and -watching Strain, its enduring influence is clear in both written and screen science fiction.

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One of the many, many beautiful qualities of the current HD transfer of this film is the ability to appreciate Richard H. Kline’s cinematography in as close to its original aspect ratio as we can have at home. The choices he and Wise made to be able to tell the film economically using the full screen width available to them, enhanced by a dioptre to enable perfect depth of focus in both the fore and back grounds of key shots, retain their power at home on a big enough flatscreen TV or via projector. This is one film that really suffered during the pan-and-scan era. White marks and the occasional other minor age blemish show up, early on, and one or two shots don’t look great due to lighting conditions when the original film was exposed, but otherwise this is the kind of terrific catalogue transfer that gives high definition a good name, retaining the film-like qualities of the original medium in the new one.

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The audio is equally well brought up to date, with the dialogue, SFX and Mellé’s extraordinary electronic score all equally present in this DTS-HD MA 2.0 remaster. The occasionally brutal, frequently unsettling score is something that most modern ears, used to only the pleasing tones of pop or rock music, or the instructional generic strings of blockbuster scores, will find very difficult to adjust to, but its pulsing rhythms foreshadow the iconic work John Carpenter (sometimes with Alan Howarth) would create for his films. (Doctor Who fans who understand Dudley Simpson’s more outré contributions to the show around the same time will have no trouble with Melle’s work here.)

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The German blu-ray is available in either a standard keep case or a stylish steelbook, retaining the on-disc extras from the earlier international DVD release: a new half-hour making-of that incorporates parts of the period making-of featurette, a quarter-hour interview with Michael Crichton, and the U.S. and German trailers. The making-of includes interviews with Crichton, director Wise, screenwriter Giddings and VFX guru Trumbull, while the Crichton piece is from the same session as the clips in the longer one.  Both were written, directed and produced by legendary archivist and film historian Laurent Bouzereau, best known for his superlative extras work on James Cameron and Steven Spielberg’s films. These extras here carry removable German subs, but ultimately these solid, informative mini-docs are cherries and icing on the cake, which is having the film itself in such good shape.

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And so another essential genre film gets a gorgeous release absolutely worth importing. The Andromeda Strain still works brilliantly forty-four years after its initial U.S. theatrical release, so much so that the 2008 TV remake not only rendered homage to specific shots, but showed how clichéd the fresh elements had become. Thankfully despite the number of times others have been to the well the source remains as fresh and clear in its intent and impact as it did then, in part because of the ground-breaking work done and the narrow focus keeping at bay extraneous emotional fodder producers believe now audiences require. Modern filmmakers looking to make smart, considered SF would do well to look back to this film in their consideration of how to tell a story with economy and visual intelligence.

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