1971. The year we make contact.
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN was written by Nelson Gidding (THE MUMMY LIVES), based on the novel by Michael Crichton (THE TERMINAL MAN, WESTWORLD, COMA, JURASSIC PARK, THE 13th WARRIOR, SPHERE), and directed by Robert Wise (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THE HAUNTING, AUDREY ROSE). The opening credits contain a disclaimer about how the events depicted here are based on documents soon to be made public, giving the movie a based-on-a-true-story feel.
We see a man in the desert at night. He's using a night vision scope to look at a nearby small town. He and another man notice that buzzards are circling above. The men get in a van and drive into the town, which turns out to be Piedmont, New Mexico, population: 68. The van contains a lot of electronic equipment and the men are in radio contact with a military installation. Conversation makes it clear they are searching for a satellite.
Our point of view switches to the air force base in radio contact with the men in the van. We hear the tense voices of the two men as they describe corpses, lots of corpses, lying in the streets of Piedmont. There's a scream followed by silence.
Major Manchek (Ramon Bieri: SORCERER, THE MUMMY AND THE DEMON) takes action. He opens a door marked "emergency only" and makes a call on a special phone.
Shortly afterward a group of soldiers interrupt a dinner party at the house of Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill: FUTUREWORLD, REVENGE OF THE STEPFORD WIVES, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES), much to the consternation of Mrs. Stone (Susan Brown: THE KLANSMAN). When the soldiers deliver the code phrase "There's a fire", Dr. Stone leaves with them immediately, not even bothering to pack. Mrs. Stone is frightened and upset so she tries to place a call to her father the senator, but a government operator comes on the line and says this call is being disconnected for reasons of national security.
Similar groups of soldiers also round up scientists Dr. Charles Dutton (David Wayne: ELLERY QUEEN[TV]) and Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid: EQUUS, PLAGUE) and surgeon Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson: MOON ZERO TWO, AMITYVILLE II: The Possession, THE MAFU CAGE). Only Dr. Leavitt is reluctant to go, for very good reason we find out later.
Stone and Hall don their moon suits and are choppered in to Piedmont. The scenes here are disturbingly well done as we see ordinary townsfolk who clearly died so fast they barely had time to be surprised. The children are especially hard to look at. Hall notices that no one is bleeding despite a few injuries incurred while dropping dead. A quick check with a scalpel shows that whatever killed these people turned their blood to powder.
They find the satellite in the town doctor's office, next to the dead doctor. The satellite is part of project Scoop, specifically meant to look for life in space. We assume a different landing zone was intended.
As Stone and Hall are leaving they find two miraculous survivors: a baby and an old man. Clearly the secret of a cure for this alien disease, later code-named Andromeda, must lay in the answer to the question: why did these two live when everyone else died?
All this happens very quickly, with a minimum of exposition. The story moves fast and keeps throwing compelling images at you, adding to the feel of reality, or at least to your suspension of disbelief. The science is tight and well done for the era and the characters are believable and passionate.
The science team comes together in a very high tech, secret underground facility called Wildfire. Located in Middle-of-Nowhere, Nevada (pretty much the whole state), Wildfire is a bio-warfare research facility specially designed to handle alien germs. Wildfire is built to contain its deadly research subjects and includes a self-destruct nuke as a last ditch measure to prevent outbreaks.
The bulk of the story takes place here and the technology becomes the star as the very latest 1970's tech is brought to the rescue. The scientists must find a cure before Andromeda can spread and argue about the best approach and about their growing suspicion that Scoop wasn't just looking for alien life. It was looking for alien germs to use as bio-weapons. I also must mention how cool it is that despite the moviemaker's love affair with technology they include a key scene where an incredibly minor technical glitch almost causes the end of the world.
A movie like this would be made very differently today, with the government demonized instead of merely being accused of bad judgment. We've become naïve in our cynicism and would insist on the evil government/military formula as the only possible approach.
I'll limit myself to a mini-
The DVD included no extras, not even theatrical trailers, which is a real shame. I'd love to know more about how such a great science fiction thriller was made. THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN gets 4 Shriek Girls.
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