Thursday, 12 August 2010

The Andromeda Strain (USA 1971)

Director: Robert Wise, based on the novel by Michael Crichton
Cast: Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson, Kate Reid, Paula Kelly

When I first saw this film, in the big screen, during the early 70s, it left a deep impression on me. I re-watched it again last night (a video recording going wrong), and all its potency and tension remained there, nearly 40 years later. I watched every single minute of The Andromeda Strain on the edge of my seat, although I still remembered the story line, it is that powerful, gripping, and pertinent today.

The film (and the novel I guess, although I have not read it) plays with the paranoia and the sense of cynicism regarding the secret state, the government and the cold war that permeated the American cultural life on those years: the Vietnam war was already on its last legs, the bombing of Cambodia (eventually leading to the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975), the flower revolution was on the wane and being replaced by that cynicism.

Nuclear armament (Dr Strangelove) here has been replaced by germ warfare, as a NASA recovery team in the Nevada desert search for a returning satellite, finding instead a small town deserted, all its inhabitants dead. They quickly follow that fate. The state machinery went into overdrive, on the name of “national security”, the area is cordoned off, a nuclear bombwas proposed to be dropped off on it to obliterate any sign of the epidemic, and a germ warfare team is quickly assembled. There are scenes here of armed soldiers waiting as military personnel collect the medical and scientific members of that team: the wife of one of those scientists attempts to phone her father, a Senator, to find that the communication was cut off for “national security reasons”, in other word, her being virtually ‘incommunicado’. The secret state is in action. The satellite was eventually recovered by two scientists wearing space-like suits, together with two survivors: a baby and an old man, a wino.

The race to find out what killed the population of this small town began ( what is the common link between the baby and the old man?), leading to the suspicion that what the satellite brought from space was not an extra terrestrial germ, but an experimental virus like form designed for germ warfare by the American military and its scientists. An experiment that went wrong – as usually these things go.

The film is able to sustain that tension all the way through, with humorous scenes thrown in and it dwells into the cracks appearing in that scientific team working in a secret research and containment laboratory buried deep in the Nevada desert, its entrance hidden behind an innocuous Department of Agriculture farm façade. Its subject is as relevant nowadays as it was then.

Regrettably, Robert Wise had to throw in the chase so ubiquitous on blockbusters, even then, the stage for the all American hero to shine, this time persecuted not by Russian or Al Qaida villains, but by laser guns. The ending of The Andromeda Strain has a too moralistic and closed ending. It would have worked better without it, leaving just a question mark behind... I suspect that, after all these years, my mind blanked out that ending, and just left the question mark.

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