Tuesday, November 17, 2020

What a disaster: Crystal healing


Directed by Robert Wise
Written by Nelson Gidding (based on the novel by Michael Crichton)

Spoiler alert: a little bit higher than moderate, but there's no way to talk about it without at least alluding to the ending

The first thing to be acknowledged is that the 1971 film adaptation of Michael Crichton's career-defining novel, The Andromeda Strain, is not primarily (or maybe at all) considered to be part of the 1970s' wave of disaster cinema, probably because there are so many other categories by which to file it: high-tech sci-fi; 70s paranoid thriller prototype; indeed, "a Michael Crichton movie," The Andromeda Strain being the first novel to be written by Michael Crichton, M.D., under his own name, and the first to be made into a movie.  It was also the first to shape itself around all the classical Crichtonian themes: the overheated, borderline-irresponsible terror of imagined threats that shouldn't come off that threatening in the first place (inorganic alien microbes, non-sentient robots, dinosaurs in a world with firearms, slightly smarter gorillas, the Japanese economy, and so on); the ensemble of scientists who show up to exposit plot ideas at each other; and, especially, the repulsed fascination with elaborate technocratic systems, brought low by implausible contrivance masquerading as the hubris of man, and their collapse withstood only thanks to man's inherent big-brained survivability.  Hence, for some damn reason, there's very nearly as much here that resembles Westworld and Jurassic Parksomehow, even structurallyas there is about the titular pathogen from outer space, which literally stops being a threat (by writer fiat!) roughly three-quarters of the way through the story, in favor of pursuing the implications of perfect systems turning out to be imperfect after all.

There are other reasons not to count it as a "disaster movie," per se, not least because, arriving in 1971, it could not have cribbed from the formula that had been roughly sketched out the previous year in its fellow Universal picture, Airport (above all, there's no way to argue this movie has an all-star cast).  But I decided to include it anyway, for one bad reasonI own it, and wanted to watch itand for one much better reasonI wanted to give "out-of-control infection" the prominent representation that it's earned, as we face a real-life disaster a whole lot more devastating than (for example) an upside-down cruise liner, or evil bees.

Not to say that Andromeda's threat is even one iota less fanciful, and, as avowed sci-fi, it may be the least-grounded "disaster movie" in the 70s' corpus.  Yet to the extent the film has maintained a reputation almost five decades later, it seems that's mostly down to scientific and medical professionals who have responded with ecstasy to the accuracy of its depiction of their jobs.  And while I'm neither a scientist nor a doctor, I can't help but ask, "what, seriously?"  The place that I think it must come frombecause it obviously can't be coming from a place of non-ludicrous speculation about the nature of extraterrestrial life, let alone its interactions with human physiologyis that Andromeda does a masterful job of capturing the emotional states that go hand-in-hand with any scientific investigation performed under pressure, the combination of stultification and stress inherent to a repetitive process explicitly designed to factor humanity out of the equation, and which is often as much about getting proven wrong as it is about being right.  On the other hand, The Andromeda Strain is also about a multi-hued secret science city out in the desert that's been tricked out with a nuclear self-destruct device, a voice-activated computer control system, and automated death rays.  "Accuracy," I presume, gets graded on a very generous curve.

Nevertheless, it happens that it was a good thing that Dr. Stone (Arthur Hill) convinced Congress to build him a $90 million supervillain lab, codenamed "Wildfire," for the scenario he had envisioned has now come to pass, a satellite having fallen back to Earth in Piedmont, NV, bringing with it a most-unwelcome microscopic visitor.  The recovery team discovers this firsthand, though for now we only hear it on the radio, as they enter the town, scream, and go silent forever.  With the alert thus triggered, the USAF assembles Stone's chosen team, some less enthusiastically than others: besides Stone himself, there are three, Dr. Dutton (David Wayne) and Dr. Leavitt (Kate Reid), biologists, and Dr. Hall (James Olson), a surgeon.  Stone and Hall take point on the investigation of Piedmont, and (from behind the safety of our heroes' biohazard space suits) now we see the town in the fullness of its apocalypse, sprawled with the bodies of inhabitants who either keeled over dead instantly, or who first went mad, then diedbut, curiously, do not bleed, even when Hall slices one open.  They discover only two survivorsa cootish old drunk (George Mitchell) and a shrieking infantand, bringing them in, they can only wonder what shared factor could have possibly allowed them to survive the pathogen they've identified, which operates in a mode as alien as its origin, curdling blood into powder.  Recommending that the President drop a nuke on Piedmont, just to be sure, which the President promptly fails to do, the scientists' task begins: to understand "Andromeda" before it can spread across the whole world.

It's the procedure that becomes predominant over virtually everything else in Nelson Gidding's screenplay: Stone and Dutton are characterized as stolid hunks of science, differentiated almost solely by their varying degrees of trust in the military-industrial complex, leaving Leavitt and Hall as the only characters in the film who even have sufficient dimensions to be described as "flat."  In the latter case, the individuating detail is that he's a frivolous idiot more prone to Hawkeye Pierce-style smart-alecked histrionics than to hard-nosed scientific inquiry.  It's never really made entirely clear why Stone even wanted a surgeon, though Stone takes pleasure in walking us through the numbers on the "odd-man hypothesis" that really recommended Hallthe idea that, as the only single male of the group, Hall would have the fewest emotional compunctions about allowing the base's nuclear fail-safe to go off in the event of any catastrophic containment failure, and I'll leave it up to you to decide for yourself whether this is more misogynist or more misandrist.  (For my part, I'll unequivocally take a third position: that any movie that talks about nuclear sterilization as often as Andromeda does without paying off on it with a mushroom cloud is a cruel tease.)  Mostly, of course, Hall exists to be our dubious point of identification, so that other characters can pitch their portentous exposition at us, which is slightly condescending, inasmuch as Hall is the kind of guy who can't even pay close enough attention to the briefing explaining how his nuclear key works to avoid needing to have it explained to him twice.

Wildfire, where nothing can possibly go wrong.

Somehow, he's effectively the movie's herohe's the most active and passionate character, and, to the extent the movie "likes" anyone, Hall's the one it likes the mostbut he does have a coherent personality.  As for Leavitta male character in the novel and gender-swapped here, though I don't believe this ultimately does womankind any favorsshe's at least allowed to be amusingly hostile and curmudgeonly, even to laugh-out-loud funny effect in a bit where Stone patronizingly admonishes her for not being more computer-like, poking her in the skull to emphasize his point, and director Robert Wise and editors Stuart Gilmore and John W. Holmes hold on the longest possible shot of Reid's infinitely sour reaction.  (Reid's modulated anger here is also by a country mile the finest acting beat in a movie only occasionally interested in such things.)  It's a pity, then, where Leavitt goes from thereshe's the most responsible for fucking things up so that we can have a third actsince up till then she actually had been the film's most interesting character, not exactly just by virtue of being a woman in a male-dominated space, but by virtue of what kind of woman Reid is41, and (without intending to be mean about it) evidently dressed down to play even older.  The total, pointed lack of anything remotely like a Raquel Welchy figure emphasizes how deliberately Wise sought out human props who would properly evoke a collection of scientists at the peak of their careers, which is to say, firmly in the grip of distinguished middle age (or beyond).  It's a strong move that lets you take Andromeda more seriously than it frankly even deserves, situating you in the matter-of-factness of four characters who, even in Olson's slightly-more-virile case, give only the littlest impression of people who know their bodies and faces are going to be blown up on a giant screen and scrutinized by millions of people.  It's maybe my favorite small thing in the film.

But then, it's the big things that make the most impact, and that brings us back to Wise.  Storming back into sci-fi after a full two decades' absence since The Day the Earth Stood Still, Wise entered the 1970s with a galvanizing new aesthetic that basically erupted fully-formed into this movie, more akin to the modernist experimentalism that had crept into other directors' cinema during the late 1960s than, say, The Sound of MusicAndromeda takes on an astonishingly abrasive complexionnever moreso than its opening titles, which, besides insisting (somewhat eye-rollingly) that this is a true story*,  are accompanied by the most avant-garde and angry piece of scene-setting possible from composer Gil Mellé, a collection of razor-sharp electronic noises which arguably never coheres into actual music.  Mellé is not a constant companion, which is for the best, but he noticeably returns about halfway through as the threat becomes clarifiedand scarier for the clarificationalbeit with more conventional and useful "techno-thriller" cues.

What is a constant companion is Wise's style, which is almost entirely jagged edges and disorienting provocation.  The downside is that Andromeda probably never really tops the nihilistic quality and painful editing rhythms that Wise brings in the first half hour: Stone and Hall slowly touring the horrors of Piedmont like a perverted parody of Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon is not going to be easily surpassed, particularly as Wise disaggregates the Panavision frame into a stunning splitscreen mosaic of death.  The most-expressive individual cut of the film arrives in the same place, as we are invited to be disturbed by a half-nude hippie with a peace medallion between her breasts, replaced by a matron with a crucifix hanging limply around her neck, their two dueling forms of American idealism rendered meaningless in the face of extinction.

None of this is to say that that the rest isn't operating at something like the same pitch: Wise, cinematographer Richard H. Kline, and production designer Boris Levengiven free rein to punch up a talky story bound mostly to a single locationobviously had a blast figuring out how to keep their science procedural from ever getting stale, and they succeed beyond any reasonable expectation with the director and DP's array of weird angles and split-diopter compositions, and the director and production designer almost going too overboard with the Wildfire base, a collection of infinitely-curving walls in eye-searing primary colors (with outfits to match!) that our team descends one level at a time, not unlike (and I suspect quite deliberately) The Masque of the Red Death.  Wise and company settle down, but only slightly, upon arrival at their final destination, the white-on-silver techno-heaven of the installation's bottom level, a setting that does so much to isolate and erase its occupants' humanity that it could just as easily be a techno-hell.  Famed special effects man Douglas Trumbull was brought on to simulate the instrumentality of Wildfire's beyond-cutting-edge technology, and the most frightening moment of Andromeda comes out of his work, as an electron micrograph of the monster pulses in time with the cold electric heartbeat of Mellé's score, and it takes our tired scientists an agonizingly long moment to comprehend what it is they're seeing.  They also "kill" a lot of test animals, in scenes of sufficient realism for the set veterinarian to be given a credit as prominent as the crew heads.

For a shockingly long time, then, Wise and his craftsmen are at work on something pretty close to flawless, the first 100 or so of Andromeda's 130 minutes representing the quintessence of Laser Age sci-fi as well as anything else that ever came out of the movement, devoted wholeheartedly to visual abstraction, temporal impressionism, and techniques that (sadly) would become so immediately-dated that they would vanish almost entirely within two or three years.  It's like the promise of Fantastic Voyage's lab scenes fulfilled, but in a dangerously downbeat register.

But then Crichton's endgame kicks in, and there's no use trying to salvage a masterpiece out of what it leaves us with, because at a certain point Andromeda simply stops playing fair.  Without wishing to be accused of trying to rewrite it entirely, the fact is, I wouldn't mind if somebody did: you'd think the mere fact of "being from 1971" would give it all the leeway necessary to pursue its various threads of fatalism and irony to their logical conclusions.  But even on its own terms, Andromeda loses its nerve.  Worse, it loses its wits, piling increasingly heavy layers of bullshit onto its already-faintly-ridiculous extraterrestrial disease (already like ice-9, but for blood, it gets even less believable), and things become really disagreeable once the central conflict awkwardly switches gears from stopping a disease to stopping a runaway nuke.  Plus, while I imagine the goal was to do a little homage to Wells's War of the Worlds in the ultimate outcome for this alien invader, the convulsions that Andromeda makes to keep its medical thriller going in the face of a deflating "cure" that should've been figured out with the very first tests are so obnoxious that you start to wonder if it's even a good movie anymore, let alone a great one, especially by the time Hall starts trying to dodge and weave his way around a fusillade of laser beams.  (Also, its suggestion that its venal, presumably-Republican government officials were correct to ignore their best scientists' advice on the basis of political optics clearly hasn't aged well.)

Now, I think it is still a good movie: such a preponderance of The Andromeda Strain is such a perfect distillation of its era's best eccentricities that I wouldn't hesitate to call it downright essential cinema.  It's only unfortunate that it's cinema that gets this stupid and soggy before it ends.

Score: 7/10

*Which is part-and-parcel with a whole damn framing narrative that, frankly, seems actively inimical to the existence of the film.

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