In many ways, Robert Wise’s 1971 thriller THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN is cut from the same cloth as the dozens of other sci-fi films dealing with the potential end of the human race due to some alien virus. Its plot, adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name, is not terribly original, but the film still makes for an intelligent and visually engaging watch. For better or worse, the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY essentially hits the viewer over the head throughout the movie, both in its stylistic and thematic elements. Wise’s film similarly strives to depict man’s progression towards abstraction and away from humanism, so that the result is an emotionally unaffecting work.
The basic premise of the film is that a satellite containing an alien virus, later named “the Andromeda Strain,” falls to earth and contaminates an entire town when opened. Subsequently, the U.S. government kicks Project Scoop into action by locating four scientists who have varying degrees of awareness about the mission. They are brought to Wildfire, a five level underground lab and bunker of sorts, where their objective is to study and mitigate the harmful effects of the Andromeda Strain. Failure to do so would result in a nuclear bomb being dropped on the contaminated town in New Mexico.
Perhaps it is not surprising when considering the deadline the scientists face that the film surges forward at such a relentless pace. Its characters themselves seem hardly aware of their very existence outside of the special operation they have been charged with. It is not unfair to say, and probably apropos to the sci-fi genre, that the central figures of THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN are more robot than human. The initiation of their mission recalls a programming of sorts: government officials utter the secret code, “there’s a fire,” and the recruited scientists drop everything they’re doing and dedicate their every energy into Project Scoop. We rarely hear them make references to their previous experience or personal lives while they are in Wildfire, and they require relatively little sleep or food as long as they are intent on the job before them.
The “Robertson Odd Man Hypothesis” that Dr. Stone puts forth further dehumanizes the group of scientists. According to this psychological concept, a single (non-married) male is the best person to make decisions about nuclear detonations. Following this proclamation, the viewer is shown a chart that details the index of effectiveness not only for each test group (single females, married males, etc.), but also for each Project Scoop scientist. As the only unmarried male in the group, Dr. Hall naturally is bestowed the key to the stations that will stop a nuclear explosion in the event of an emergency. This reduction of a complex human decision to a mere statistic is in line with the cold, robotic landscape Wise introduces in this film.
The director also makes several conscious aesthetic choices throughout THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN that contribute to this sterile tone. One notable choice is the distortion of the typical filming of dialogue. The first case in which this is evident is in the beginning of the movie, when the two scientists visiting the New Mexico town meet their untimely death. Though the viewer initially watches them as they drive into town, Wise ultimately denies his audience the gratification of seeing their final minutes of existence. Instead, we hear their anxious voices as the camera fixates on the sonar screen that registers sound waves coming from their end of the radio, so that their last screams are nothing more than a burst of frantic electronic waves.
The next instance of a cinematic distortion of dialogue occurs when the three male scientists are being x-rayed in Wildfire. Although the audience is privy to their conversation, we see neither their faces nor their actual bodies as they talk. Rather, in a most disorienting fashion, we see the thermal scan of their figures as they interact with one another. Of course, this also acts as a clever means of skirting around the issue of male nudity, but its effect is nonetheless jarring. Two of the most important clues humans normally interpret during a conversation, body language and facial expression, are withheld, so that the emotional distance between the audience and the film’s characters grows.
As if these methods were not enough, Wise employs additional cinematic techniques that encourage the audience to perceive characters and events from a stilted perspective. The split screen, for example, is well utilized here. When Drs. Stone and Hall survey the deaths of the New Mexican townspeople, we see them peering into windows in one box, and the corpses in a separate one. This method is not entirely out of place considering other films of the same time period such as THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR and EASY RIDER were also experimenting with screen effects of the same nature.
In the end, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN achieves what any good science fiction film should: it examines the relationship between man and technology, and how humanity is altered by this relationship. If we are to take Robert Wise’s word for it, the two distinct bodies may be more similar than we think.