Michael Crichton is something of an overlooked name in Hollywood. Mainly known for the mega blockbuster Jurassic Park, the best selling author has been a part of the film industry for decades. Along with the Stephen Spielberg hit, he also wrote Twister. The HBO series Westworld is based on the 1973 movie of the same name that Crichton both wrote and directed. Crichton’s Hollywood resume is an impressive one.
Crichton’s first foray into the film world was 1971’s The Andromeda Strain. Based on his book from two years before, the science fiction story is about a possible extraterrestrial organism that has been discovered. A team of scientists work to try to figure the origin and purpose of this strain. The movie is a thrilling adventure that defies many sci-fi tropes while telling a tight story.
Director Robert Wise has credits as diverse as West Side Story, and 1963’s The Haunting. The Andromeda Strain shows just as much creativity as any of his previous works. This is most noticeable in the many split screen shots in the movie. These moments almost look like a comic book. The audience is reading the action as it takes place on the screen. It adds gravity at times or simulates movement when necessary. There is also a very neat scene that resembles the word clouds that are so popular today.
The Andromeda Strain also includes great use of color. The majority of the movie takes place in a five level military installation. Each level is represented by a different color. As the team goes down the colors become less vibrant. The second level is a lush red that pops off the screen while the last level is a drab nondescript grey. Whereas most sci fi films give audiences occasional moments, The Andromeda Strain never stops.
The sound effects in the film are perfect. When a title card scrolls across the screen, it sounds as if it is arriving via a print our from the giant machines of the time. Instead of over the top beeps and boops,the computers whir and buzz in a way that sounds real. What makes the sound effects works so well are the moments when of silence. Sometimes, the title cards are static. In these cases, there are no additional sound effects. The Andromeda Strain seems to be constantly striving for realism.
The plot does a great job of building its story. Movies often take many liberties with their source material, but this is a time where it seems to follow it exactly. There is a clear opening with an introduction of characters, the body tells a story as the action rises, leading to its conclusion. Many times, a slow moving film will be called patient or methodical. The Andromeda Strain is patient in its storytelling, but it would be a mistake to call it slow. The plot and characters are constantly developing even though there are few of the bombastic moments that are associated with sci fi movies.
A great example is how the team moves through each layer of the base. This would be the entire plot of most other movies. Characters enter a new level, face whatever challenges arise, then move on to the next one where the process is repeated. In The Andromeda Strain, each level is an opportunity to learn about the characters and the organism. Nothing is ever rushed and by the time everyone is at the bottom, the audience has a full understanding of everyone’s motivations.
The entire movie is filled with strong writing until the very end. The last ten minutes are typical and go against the rest of the film. It is almost as if Crichton was not quite sure how to end the strong story. What ends up happening is the military base that is able to defend itself against anything is outsmarted by a guy yelling “Duck!” One of the scientists even comments on how anticlimactic everything turned out.
The Andromeda Strain has few flaws. The storytelling is impeccable. It builds its characters and story blending tension, drama, and just enough comedy perfectly. Unlike other science fiction films, it does not rely heavily on effects. The film seems like another typical government conspiracy tale, but the strong writing make it much more.