The Andromeda Strain (1970)
Patronised upon release, one of Robert Wise’s best late-period films now stands firmly as a seminal work: in melding a pseudo-documentary approach with technocratic, procedural stylisation, wedded to a plot of apocalyptic bi-fi fantasy, sporting a nascent attitude of cynicism towards government and military use of science, light years from the easy way they meshed in ‘50s sci-fi films, and now highly clichéd. It’s obviously cast a long shadow over many another pop-culture phenomena, from The X-Files to CSI.
Wise spurns overt hysteria and melodrama for a uniquely intense and detailed situation, in which a band of brainiacs played by a handful of excellent character actors (Walter Hill, James Olson, Kate Reid, Paula Kelly and David Wayne) are gathered together to investigate a deadly organism brought back from outer space by a crashed exploratory satellite, within the confines of a super-duper control laboratory that proves to be more dangerous than the bug itself. Author Michael Crichton’s relentless fascination with the notion of the ghost in the machine (as well as his glib veneers of social satire and faked hard sci-fi specifics) is much in evidence.
Wise’s direction is cool and intricate, utilising then-cutting edge cinematic ideas without needing to try too hard to seem with-it, (unlike the characters on screen, who remind us too often that this film was made in 1970).
The flashforward structure, which cuts between the main action and a Senate hearing into the fallout, is a bit half-hearted in execution. But the strong cast (especially the terrific Reid, virtually inventing a new cinematic character – the tubby wisecracking girl-nerd) and intense telling sustains a film that refuses to give into hype until the last ten minutes, which erupts in one of the most breathlessly entertaining races against time ever shot.
This could be the only film ever made where a microscopic blob of green and a malfunctioning computer’s eerie noises come to evoke infinite threat more effectively than a dozen CGI alien armies.