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The Andromeda Strain

Year: 1971
Studio: Universal
Director: Robert Wise
Writer: Michael Crichton

I knew I'd seen the name of The Andromeda Strain's director. Robert Wise was the very same man who bought us one of the past-war period's most spectacular and beloved sci-fi films, The Day the Earth Stood Still .

Michael Crichton's novel was one of his most thrilling exercises in cold, clinical, factual storytelling, and Crichton was a very adept director as Coma and Westworld tell us.

So I was worried – despite knowing who Wise was – that this would end up losing all the best elements of the novel, much like every Stephen King adaptation seems to jettison everything that makes his books special.

But Wise manages to retain the theme of starkly professional and competent people dealing with an equally scientific storyline and high technology. Where most stories give us conflict by having people fight amongst themselves, Wise (and the source material) does so by having a group of very smart people whose apparatus runs (mostly) like clockwork going through very controlled and particular motions to defuse the conflict, this time with an alien virus.

It was one of the stronger ideas of Crichton's canon – what if organisms extremely harmful to humans lived in our upper atmosphere and one attached itself to a returning satellite?

We open on a tiny desert town in the continental US where it seems everybody has dropped dead in the street. After a chilling opening coda as military comms operators listen to the two men sent to retrieve the craft go apparently insane over the radio, a military flyover confirms the worst.

A crack team of biological scientists are called in to a top secret biohazard facility where the craft and the only two survivors, a crazy old redneck and a newborn baby, are taken.

A good deal of the story deals with their descent through the innards of the facility, going through ever more elaborate methods to cleanse them of harmful or interfering agents. Ultraviolet light baths, chemical sprays, special food and increasingly sterile clothing are all part of the trip that takes almost a full 24 hours, and it's one of the most fascinating parts of the movie.

From there it's a process of extreme scientific procedural work, painstakingly testing the atmosphere locked in with the satellite, going over the craft with a microscopic camera to look for impurities and try and find out what the baby and old man have not just in common but apart from the rest of the townspeople.

If you like movies with a scientific – not a sci-fi – basis, this is a technogeek's paradise. Everything from the script to the performances are understated, but the narrative will keep you gripped.

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