Andromeda Strain (The) (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (30th June 2019).
The Film

The Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise, 1971)

Synopsis: A team is sent by the USAF to enter the town of Piedmont, New Mexico, with the intention of retrieving a crashed satellite. However, upon entering Piedmont the team discover the streets littered with corpses. Something terrible happens; the team members’ screams are heard by the radio operator and commanding officer of the nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base, Major Manchek (Ramon Bieri), who declares a state of emergency.

Air Force personnel collect Dr Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) from his residence. Stone is the co-ordinator of the Wildfire programme, a collection of research scientists that also includes Dr Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid), Dr Mark Hall (James Olson) and Dr Charles Dutton (David Wayne). They deduce that what caused the deaths at Piedmont was ‘some form of space germ form of space germ’ that was carried back to Earth by the crashed satellite.

Stone and Hall are taken by helicopter to Piedmont where, wearing Hazmat suits, they inspect the town. They find the blood of the corpses has turned to powder in their veins. Upon closer discovery, Stone and Hall find two survivors: an elderly man and a young baby.

After the inspection of Piedmont, the four scientists are taken to the Wildfire facility, buried deep under the New Mexico desert, its access point disguised as a Department of Agriculture building. Within the Wildfire facility, the team will investigate the reasons for the deaths in Piedmont, studying the satellite (codenamed ‘Scoop’) and its contents, and also examining both survivors (the baby and the elderly man). However, first they must pass through four levels of the facility in order to prevent outside contamination, each level colour-coded. Additionally, at the heart of Wildfire is a nuclear device which is primed to self-destruct if any of the security protocols are broken. Hall is given the only key to disarm the self-destruct sequence, on the basis of the Odd Man Hypothesis: he is a single man with no immediate family and therefore, the hypothesis suggests, able to execute the most objective command decisions.

After some tests, the scientists come to believe that the a substance carried to Earth on the satellite – a kind of green slime on a black rock – displays some characteristics of life though with the absence of amino acids. This substance, which they codename ‘Andromeda’, also ‘eats’ plastics and expands upon the absorption of energy; this revelation leads to a hurried attempt to prevent the dropping of a nuclear device upon Piedmont, the scientists reasoning that the resultant burst of energy would only serve to ‘feed’ Andromeda and encourage it to grow. Andromeda is carried on the air and able to change colour and shape; however, what enabled the baby and the old man to be immune to its effects.

Critique: Based on Michael Crichton’s groundbreaking novel, published two years prior to the release of the film, The Andromeda Strain taps into a countercultural zeitgeist of conspiracy theories in which agents of the government attempt to cover up, and perhaps even cause – either intentionally or otherwise – disasters that have significant collateral damage. Certainly, The Andromeda Strain focuses on a top secret government base, Wildfire, buried beneath an Area 51-type area of desert (and disguised, on the surface, as an agricultural complex); Wildfire is built over a nuclear reactor primed to self-destruct in the case of a cataclysmic outbreak within the facility itself. Reflecting a countercultural distrust of the military-industrial complex, The Andromeda Strain displays a cynical attitude towards authority that is sometimes expressed directly through the dialogue of the four scientists who are part of the Wildfire programme – most notably, Dutton, who several times in the film suggests to his colleagues that the US government may have intentionally brought back the ‘space germ’ in order to test its efficacy as a possible bio-weapon. (‘I suspect they [the government] were looking for the ultimate biological weapon’, Dutton declares at one point in the film, later asserting grimly that ‘The purpose of Scoop was to find new biological weapons in outer space and then use Wildfire to develop them’.) Dutton also worries that in destroying Andromeda, ‘Without knowing it, we might exterminate a highly intelligent form of life’. Elsewhere, Dutton is asked to function as a mouthpiece for vaguely countercultural ideas: ‘The whole thing. What a world we’re making’, Dutton laments to Leavitt, ‘I can see why the kids are dropping out. We should too’. The filmmakers were perhaps ahead of the curve in their depiction of the Wildfire facility, as the notion of ‘Area 51’ as a place to which alien organisms were brought for experimentation didn’t enter wider public consciousness until approximately ten years later (notably with the 1980 picture Hangar 18, directed by James L Conway).

The motif of an alien virus ‘invading’ Earth and causing harm to the population became even more prevalent in later films and television series, from John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) to The X-Files (Fox, 1993-2002). However, in its focus on the deadly effects of Andromeda, brought to Earth upon a crashed satellite, there are some interesting parallels with George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), whose dialogue suggests the reanimated ghouls have been brought back to life owing to a contaminant brought back to Earth upon a probe sent to Venus.

A groundbreaking novel in the sense that it introduced popular audiences to many hitherto esoteric aspects of scientific life, The Andromeda Strain was not the first novel that Crichton wrote: prior to its publication, Crichton had previously published a series of hardboiled novels under the pseudonym John Lange, and a medical thriller, A Case in Need (1968), under another nom-de-plume (Jeffrey Hudson). However, The Andromeda Strain was the first novel Crichton published under his own name, and the book also established many of the paradigms with which Crichton’s later novels – including The Terminal Man (1972) and Jurassic Park (1990) – would become associated. These include an emphasis on scientific accuracy, and much of The Andromeda Strain – both novel and film adaptation – is an exercise in documenting procedures, the story offering a painstaking depiction of the prolonged processes through which the four scientists must pass in order to reach the lower level of the Wildfire facility where the satellite and the two survivors are being held. Within the novel, Crichton attempted to blue fact and fiction by punctuating the novel with authentic-looking ‘documents’, culminating in a bibliography at the end of the book that lists publications by the fictional scientists in the story alongside very real publications. Crichton’s mixing of fact and fiction in this way, which includes populating the narrative with references to real people; Crichton was inspired to do this after reading Len Deighton’s The IPCRESS File (1962) (Shenker, 1969).

Fundamentally, The Andromeda Strain is a disaster movie, and in line with Crichton’s approach within the novel, which blurs fact and fiction, it’s one which attempts to adopt a semidocumentary approach. The film opens with an onscreen title that declares provocatively that ‘The documents presented here are soon to be made public. They do not in any way jeopardize the national security’. Wise was no stranger to the semidocumentary form, having edited Orson Welles’ groundbreaking Citizen Kane in 1941 and directed a number of other pictures which featured a semidocumentary approach (for example, 1952’s The Captive City and 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still). Throughout The Andromeda Strain, there is a noticeable tendency to avoid, as much as possible, the use of non-diegetic music, and the picture uses various visual cues to suggest the aesthetic and texture of a documentary (despite the widescreen photography), including the use of ticker-tape onscreen titles running across the bottom of the screen, cutaways to teletype machines hammering out their messages, and some split-screen segments which predate the use of split-screen in a more overtly artificial context by filmmakers such as Brian De Palma. The story is also punctuated by cutaways to a Senate committee hearing that takes place after the events of the film. The film’s opening sequence establishes its minimalistic approach when the crew sent to Piedmont discover the street littered with the bodies of the dead before they succumb to the effects of Andromeda; this disastrous journey into the small town is communicated wholly through audio, via a radio broadcast made by the expedition to the USAF base nearby, made all the impactful precisely because we don’t see what is happening to them. This establishes the peril faced by Stone’s team when they enter Piedmont later in the picture. (It also has corollaries with a similar sequence in another film that Arrow have recently released to Blu-ray, Paul Donovan’s Def-Con 4, in which the direct effects of a nuclear bomb are articulated via an audio recording made by the protagonist’s wife.) Equally unsettling is the scene in which the Hazmat suited Stone and Hall inspect the town of Piedmont, split-screen footage showing the victims’ corpses strewn about shots that mimic the paradigms of forensic photography. They discover the body of a woman who has hanged herself, leaving a suicide note declaring ‘The Day of Judgement is at hand’. This leads Hall to note that whilst ‘Most of them died instantly, a few had time to go quietly nuts’. As they prepare to leave, they hear the cries of the baby that survived contact with Andromeda and also discover the old man who also survived.

Viewers concerned about animal cruelty would be well-advised to note that the film features a few upsetting scenes in which lab animals – rats and a rhesus monkey – are exposed to Andromeda. These moments were achieved by placing the animals in a Carbon Dioxide-rich atmosphere, essentially subjecting them to oxygen deprivation, with the result that their death throes simulate the effects of hypoxia very convincingly. The rhesus monkey was apparently revived; I’m not so sure about the fate of the rats. Certainly, regardless of whether the animals were revived or not, animal lovers are likely to find these scenes, in which animals are brought to the brink of death from hypoxia, as challenging – or perhaps even more so – than scenes in more outwardly combative films in which animals are killed swiftly and violently.


Video

Filling just over 35Gb of space on a dual-layered Blu-ray disc, The Andromeda Strain is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. The presentation is based on a new 4k scan of the original negative. The film is uncut, with a running time of 130:38 mins.

Photographed in anamorphic widescreen and on 35mm colour stock, the film looks very good here. The intended aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is preserved. (Given how ‘busy’ and carefully balanced the film’s compositions are, it’s difficult to imagine this picture playing at all well in a panned-and-scanned version.)

The film’s photography uses nearly all of the tricks in the book. Combined with the use of predominantly shorter focal lengths, split dioptre shots create a sense of extremely strong depth of field, even in low-light sequences. The use of modish split screen effects conveys a sense of events unfolding at a breakneck pace and evidence gathering all around. Every level of the Wildfire facility is colour-coded, the protagonists placed in matching paper suits which are burnt, in order to avoid contamination from one level to the next, as they move further through Wildfire.

The film opens with a fairly funky-looking day for night scene but things soon improve when the action is carried to the Vandenberg Air Force Base, where the action is lit by red lights from the control panels. Colours are rich, deep and consistent, the bold colour schemes in the Wildfire facility being handled very well. The previous Blu-ray release suffered from some intermittent damage; this seems to have been rectified in this new Blu-ray presentation from Arrow. However, some of the optical effects still look fairly funky, with a noticeable change in grain structure in these sequences. Detail is pleasing, including in close-ups. Contrast levels are very good, with rich and defined midtones tapering off into the toe; low light scenes fare well, with detail being retained in the shadows. The encode retains the structure of 35mm film, resulting in a pleasingly film-like viewing experience.

Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.


Audio

Audio is presented via a LPCM 1.0 track. This is rich and deep, with good range where it’s needed. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included. These are easy to read and free from errors.

Extras

The disc includes:
- An audio commentary with critic Bryan Freeman. This is an enthusiastic commentary by Freeman, an entertainment journalist. Freeman discusses the careers of the key personnel involved in the film’s production, reflecting in particular on Wise’s flexibility as a director. He also talks about some of the techniques employed in the making of the film, including some of the photographic trickery (eg, the film’s emphasis on split screen and split dioptre lenses).

- ‘A New Strain of Science Fiction’ (28:02). In a new interview, Kim Newman reflects on The Andromeda Strain’s significance in the development of what he calls the ‘decontamination suit’ film – a subgenre that extends to the likes of Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak in 1995. He talks about Robert Wise’s work on the picture and he also discusses at length the film’s relationship with Michael Crichton’s work and Crichton’s enduring focus on scientific research within his fiction.

- ‘Making the Film’ (30:08). This archival featurette features interviews with Robert Wise, Michael Crichton, special effects coordinator Douglas Trumbull and writer Nelson Gidding in which they address some of the film’s themes and reflect on the production of The Andromeda Strain. Trumbull offers some fascinating reflection on how some of the picture’s effects were achieved. The featurette incorporates some vintage behind the scenes material alongside interviews shot at the time of the film’s production.

- ‘A Portrait of Michael Crichton’ (12:33). This is another archival featurette which focuses on Michael Critchton, who in interview talks about how he came to be a writer of fiction, and the manner in which The Andromeda Strain represented a turning away from the pseudonymous ‘hardboiled’ novels he had published previously (largely under the name of ‘John Lange’) towards the speculative science fiction that formed the core of his later work.

- Cinescript Gallery. Divided into three sections (‘Title Page and Preface’; ‘Shooting Script’; and ‘Appendix’), this features the film’s original 192 page screenplay (by Nelson Gidding) alongside production sketches and diagrams.

- Trailer (3:18).

- TV Spots (1:50).

- Radio Spots (1:49).

- Gallery: Production (116 images); Poster & Video Art (52 images).

Overall

There’s an easy verisimilitude to Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, one which leads readers even today to speculate whether Crichton had access to top secret documentation and based his narrative on this, and Robert Wise’s film adaptation attempts to emulate this through various cinematic tricks – and mostly succeeds. Although the film helped to create a new subgenre of science fiction cinema – which Kim Newman, on this disc, amusingly calls ‘decontamination suit movies’ – The Andromeda Strain feels as fresh today as it did in 1971. The conspiracies it articulates, and which it arguably anticipated (eg, the conspiracies surrounding Area 51, which didn’t become so prevalent in the public consciousness until a decade or so after The Andromeda Strain was released) are still with us, and Wise’s technique – his use of split screen, split dioptre lenses and other effects – still feels novel in the digital age.

Arrow’s Blu-ray release of the film contains an excellent presentation of the main feature alongside some superb special features.

References:
Shenker, Israel, 1969: ‘Michael Crichton (rhymes with frighten)’. The New York Times (8 June, 1969) [Online.] https://www.nytimes.com/1969/06/08/archives/michael-crichton-rhymes-with-frighten-michael-crichton.html

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