For this month’s next review for Genre Grandeur – Medical Dramas here’s a review of The Andromeda Strain (1971) by James of Blogging By Cinemalight.
Thanks again to Patty of CaftanWoman.com for choosing this month’s genre.
Next month’s genre has been chosen by Todd of The Forgotten Filmz Podcast and we will be reviewing our favorite 80’s teen films
Please get me your submissions by the 25th of Sep by sending them to email@example.com
Try to think out of the box! Great choice Todd!
Let’s see what James thought of this movie:
The Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise, 1971) Robert Wise’s return to science-fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still) after years in the musical field (West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Star!) proved that he was still as effective as a gritty story teller as he was a choreographer. Michael Crichton’s first best-seller (he’d paid his way through medical school writing pulp novels and thrillers, then abandoned a medical career to write) hit the wave of nervousness fearing “moon-germs” infesting Earth from the first Apollo moon-landings. Crichton had a fascinating little gambit–he filled the book with graphs and text and bibliography references that gave the book the air of legitimacy, when, in fact, he made everything up whole cloth, even the citations. Nobody cried “fowl,” or hauled him before Oprah to be pilloried. He merely went on to write his series of oddly-cautionary fast-reads of the dangers of current technology, all like prose-screenplays waiting to be filmed, only occasionally departing from the formula to write something interesting (“The Great Train Robbery,” “Eaters of the Dead”). His characters were largely cyphers, until after a brief flirtation with movie-making, all of his male lead characters seemed to be based on Sean Connery (who starred in Crichton’s film of his own The Great Train Robbery).
But, that’s the future. For The Andromeda Strain, Wise pulled off a similar cinematic trick to keep it real–he didn’t cast stars, just good character actors (and a couple of formidable stage actors) for the leads, filmed what was essentially a “bottle show” (mostly taken place in a contained space with few exteriors in an unfussy, clean style in wide panavision and split-screen, and maybe the first instance of on-screen date/time/location computer updates graphiced across the screen to orient ourselves. It’s played out in as unmelodramatic a way as was possible with minimum effects.
Wise and screenwriter Nelson Giddings do a thorough job of negotiating Crichton’s juggled narrative and technical jargon, not withholding anything essential to the investigation no matter how arcane, and then boil it down like a detective story to the central puzzle: why two disparate survivors escaped having their blood crystallized, specifically, how is a perfectly healthy squalling baby similar to a decrepit vagabond with a bleeding ulcer and a taste for drinking sterno. Obvious answers are discarded one by one and it’s a neat exercise in re-thinking a problem.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of specific and very intricate laboratory work going on, that not only shows the process, but the sheer grinding duplication that such a thorough testing and deciphering must entail. And for once, the examination that is made of Andromeda is not dumbed down with off-screen work and a bursting entrance through a door announcing what new discovery has been made; a casual observer with no history of medicine or biology will learn a lot about organisms and infections and how they function, as well as the odd lesson in decision-making, the prejudice against epilepsy-sufferers and feng shui as related to color.
It’s smart. And it assumes the viewer is smart enough to follow along, and that’s refreshing (especially compared to its mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging remake-see below), and it’s core cast (the irreplaceable Arthur Hill and Kate Reid, David Wayne and James Olsen) does a terrific job of underplaying the drama (the smaller, more bureaucratic roles have a tendency to drift towards melodrama and easy caricature), and it has a smashing pay-off with one of the best cliff-hangers in sci-fi history (as did the book, and you’d have to be pretty incompetent (see below) to keep it from being a nail-biter.
It’s a neglected techno-thriller from two of the masters of their respective crafts at the top of their games.
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Once this movie grabs you, it is impossible to turn away. The casting went a long way to bringing the thoughtful screenplay alive and Wise impresses me more and more with the rewatchability of his best films.