The Andromeda Strain (1971)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Andromeda Strain</strong> (1971)

(Second viewing, On Cable TV, April 2012) I hadn’t seen this film in about two decades, but seeing it today was almost like seeing it for the first time: Much of the film’s impact is to be found not in the basic plot (in which scientists investigate a new and lethal threat from space in a top-secret secure laboratory) but in the ways this plot is presented on-screen.  For viewers deeply steeped in the current storytelling aesthetics of the techno-thriller genre, The Andromeda Strain is a seminal film.  It laboriously presents devices that would be used as shorthand for more than a generation of latter filmmakers.  Much of the film’s first hour is spent laboriously describing details (mysterious deaths, characters being gathered, their gradual introduction to the intricately-protected facility) that would be condensed to the simplest shorthand by latter movies such as Resident Evil.  The pace may be considerably slower than modern films, but some of the techniques remain captivating: The split-screen cinematography, the thick jargon, the post-action framing device, the quasi-documentary appeal to authority, the unflinching dedication to procedural details… it’s a generally-faithful adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel that ended up influencing an entire sub-genre.  The film has certainly struck a nerve in popular culture: I gasped audibly when I recognized the original line of dialogue (“Let’s go back to the rock… and see it at four-forty”) sampled in Apollo 440’s “Ain’t Talking About Dub”.  Some of the changes from the Crichton novel are better than others: The character gender switch that brought Kate Reid in the film have also led to a memorable character, even though the film itself is a bit weaker in explaining the “Scoop” premise of the plot.  Douglas Trumbull’s special effects are impressive for the time, but sometimes fail to accurately represent what’s happening on-screen.  Plot-wise, the film is just as notable as the novel in presenting a non-event; The Andromeda Strain has characters struggling to understand and eventually try to stop a mistake, but (taking its cues from War of the Worlds) doesn’t give them a whole lot to do in stopping the threat that brings them together.  It’s still a fascinating piece of work, though, especially for what it doesn’t do well from a perspective forty years distant.

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