The Andromeda Strain (Region 1 edition)

Starring: Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson & Kate Reid
Universal Studios Home Video
RRP: $14.99
Certificate: G
Available now

A US satellite crashes to earth in a small town carrying a deadly bacterium. Scientists at Wildfire, a top secret underground installation, battle to understand the alien lifeform and prevent a massive outbreak...

Purists sometimes cite Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain as an example of how authentic science-fiction genre differs from more commonplace fantasy and horror that 'hijack' futuristic settings. A new DVD of the 1971 film adaptation has just replaced an earlier 'vanilla' disc, and includes specially-produced documentaries that explore this and other aspects of the work.

Like the book, the film purports to be a 'true' story based on soon-to-be declassified documents and is shot in a cool, documentary style. It features technology that is just a nudge ahead of its production date and looks at issues that come from inside Pandora's Box, rather than some satirical exaggeration of current mores.

After more than 30 years, you might expect the story to have lost much of its impact and there are glaring anachronisms. Characters talk about 'time-sharing' for computers, a concept that has become very dated (SETI being the one obvious exception). The graphics look childishly simple, throwbacks to when comp-scis would wow kids with Snoopy drawings made on golfball printers. And the movie carries an electronic score that today sounds like cues the BBC Radiophonic Workshop rejected. However, all this is offset by the consistent realism and the dividends that pays.

Although The Andromeda Strain was criticised in the Seventies for being too slow-paced and low-key, these aspects seem to have extended its shelf-life. The utilitarian interior of the Wildfire facility rings true - it still feels like this is the kind of place where they would do this kind of thing. Meanwhile, the comparatively heavy science content works well: popular understanding of the topic today demands such accuracy in terms of how characters think and act (even though, if you listen very carefully to what comes over the Tannoy, it's usually gibberish).

The film also has a robust narrative structure, a skilful blend of detective story, apocalyptic thriller, and cautionary tale. This is present in the novel, but is enhanced on celluloid by Nelson Gidding's literate and - jargon notwithstanding - witty screenplay. For his part, director Robert Wise (The Day The Earth Stood Still) is an old hand who knows how to manipulate the various elements, getting as much from the tension between his characters as he does from the climactic scrabble to stop a nuclear bomb vaporising Wildfire, and, at the same time, spreading the bacterium far and wide.

Within such boundaries, a no-star cast of top-notch character actors plays to that old notion of 'real people in exceptional circumstances'. The histrionics of a comparable but more recent film, like 1995's Outbreak, have no place. We are not force fed picture-perfect heroes, but scientists who look increasingly gaunt and become more frustrated as sleepless hours pass in their quest for a solution. And they all make mistakes - big, very human mistakes.

Overall, the really big contrast between this movie and sci-fi as typically served up by Hollywood is not so much its technological content (sorry, you purists) as its concentration on achieving and then exploiting your suspension of disbelief.

Even the best genre outings now tend to emphasise that what you are watching really is 'only a movie'. They go over-the-top either in terms of special effects or performances - or both. The Andromeda Strain tries to suck you into its world so that your passivity/helplessness as a spectator runs in parallel to the inevitable ignorance of characters trying to master something completely alien. It's long - 131 minutes - but it does demand and reward your attention thanks to the craft involved and its intelligence.

Beyond that, the film also refuses to offer 'closure', that happy, waltz-off-into-the-sunset element so beloved of studio executives. If the scientists succeed in their battle against the bacterium, it is more by luck than judgement. Technology is shown to be far from reliable (I won't spoil it, but the film features what is still one of the best uses of Murphy's Law in fiction). And the coda leaves a worrying question hanging in mid-air: "What might happen next time?"

There is the temptation to say that The Andromeda Strain has reacquired contemporary relevance because of its underlying theme of biological warfare and current fears about the terrorist use of such weapons. Well, that's beyond dispute. If you live in a major city (Washington DC, in my case), the accidental echo is there. But the film's traditional virtues are more important and those are what make it excellent entertainment.

On the Universal DVD - to make sure you get the right one, note that it replaces a disc from Image Entertainment - the two fine new documentaries are the work of the 'special features' answer to Spielberg, Laurent Bouzereau.

The first is a 30-minute 'making of', with contributions from Wise, Crichton, Gidding and special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull. It delivers valuable insights into the production process and why various dramatic decisions were taken. The second programme runs for just over 12 minutes and offers Crichton's views about the genesis of the novel, the structural and stylistic choices he made, and the beginnings of what has become a huge literary career. Fans will enjoy hearing this articulate and intelligent author address his early works.

The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer and 2.0 Dolby Digital mono soundtrack are excellent. While you might be disappointed that a 5.1 remix has not been added (a 70mm six-track version of the film was screened in the 1970s), bear in mind that Wise dislikes surround sound, particularly its use of rear speakers. He regards the multichannel format as a distraction from the images on screen, so this DVD is pretty much how he wants his movie to be seen and heard.

Rounded off with the original trailer and subtitles in Spanish and French, the disc's one disappointment is the absence of a Wise commentary. The veteran director has contributed thoughtful and informative tracks for some of his other films, most notably DTESS and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

That said, there is still enough in this new 'strain' to make the disc a worthwhile addition to any collection, and even to tempt owners of the earlier release to trade up.

Paul Dempsey

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