On the 40th anniversary of its release, we revisit this article written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.
Oscar-winner Robert Wise (1914-2005), a former film editor and a master craftsman who consistently excelled in many genres, directed this faithful adaptation of Michael Crichton’s 1969 bestseller, scripted by Nelson Gidding. Their five collaborations included I Want to Live! (1958), which secured Gidding his own Oscar nomination, and the seminal classic The Haunting (1963).
When the tiny town of Piedmont, New Mexico, is wiped out overnight, scientists locate a pair of survivors and an Air Force satellite, which has apparently brought back an alien organism (code-named Andromeda). Racing against time, they assemble a team at Wildfire, a multi-level government installation buried beneath the Nevada desert, to isolate and contain the lethal strain.
Wise cast seasoned character actors Arthur Hill, David Wayne, and James Olson instead of recognizable stars, so that viewers would more readily accept them as scientists. At Gidding’s behest, he made one of Crichton’s male protagonists a woman, albeit a decidedly unglamorous one (Kate Reid), which—according to their scientific advisers—only added to the film’s realism.
Over the next four days, the team tries to learn why Andromeda did not kill the survivors, an old drunk and a baby who seem initially to have nothing in common. Wildfire is equipped with a nuclear-destruct device in case of emergency, and the film reaches a dramatic climax when it is accidentally triggered, forcing Olson to run a gauntlet of lasers to abort the countdown.
It is a testament to the filmmakers’ skill, and to the wide boundaries of the genre, that this methodical search for an “antagonist” invisible to the naked eye is as exciting as any space opera. The multitude of scientific data is presented clearly, never overwhelming the audience with technobabble, while the design of the Wildfire setting is both believable and visually interesting.
As they tell their suspenseful story, Wise and Gidding explore how human error can often undermine even the most impressive technology and preparations. And because Andromeda is revealed to have been the result of a secret search for possible germ-warfare weapons, they are also able to shed some light on the morality of various Cold War issues, without being dogmatic.
Boasting an effective electronic score from Gil Mellé (composer of the memorable theme for TV’s Kolchak: The Night Stalker), and special effects by the legendary Douglas Trumbull of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) fame, The Andromeda Strain received Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Film Editing. A bloated and superfluous miniseries remake aired on the A&E Network in 2008.