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August, 2009 : Essay:

We're Scientists, Trust Us

On the border between science fiction and horror films is the figure of the "mad scientist." In the most dystopian stories we're often in awe of the technological breakthroughs, even if they're being misused. It's notable that the makers of the most prominent dystopian films of the last twenty-five years (Brazil, 1984, Dark City) chose a decidedly retro look to avoid the inevitable "sense of wonder" that speculation about future technology usually brings.

That's what makes the films based on the novels of the late Michael Crichton (and several that he wrote and/or directed himself) so schizophrenic. Crichton was the anti-Arthur C. Clarke. In novels like The Terminal Man and Jurassic Park (both made into movies) he came up with scientific extrapolations and then told stories about how they went horribly wrong. Where Clarke saw science and reason as the hope for the future, Crichton saw only danger. If he wasn't quite a Luddite, he certainly wasn't a tribune for science. His pessimism is made even clearer when contrasted with Stanley Kubrick's. In Kubrick's science fiction films (Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange) it's not the technology that fails but the human beings. To take but one example, the HAL 9000 computer isn't the film's monster. It's the victim of bad programming (by people) which required it to a.) protect the mission at all costs and b.) keep that mission secret from the crew for the time being. The two commands come into conflict with deadly results, but it's not because HAL is "evil." It's because HAL is reconciling the bad commands as best as it can.

The Andromeda Strain was the first movie based on a Crichton novel, and one already sees the seeds of his future "science gone wrong" stories; although, as directed by veteran filmmaker Robert Wise, it plays out as more of a thriller than an indictment. Wise was an eclectic American director whose credits included editing Citizen Kane, and directing West Side Story and The Sound of Music. He also directed two SF film landmarks, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Wise did not have an affinity for SF films the way, say, Steven Spielberg does, but he didn't treat such assignments as if he was slumming. In The Andromeda Strain he wants us to be fascinated by the details as dedicated scientists prepare to solve a deadly mystery.

The story opens when a satellite sent from Earth to collect material in space crashes to Earth in a small Arizona town. Appallingly, it has brought back something that has killed everyone in the town. Most dropped dead where they stood. A few had time to go mad and take their own lives. A team of scientists is assembled and we see their lives disrupted as armed men come to their doors to announce that there's been a "fire," the code for the arrival of some sort of alien invasion. In this case they are microscopic, but no less deadly.

Wise (and screenwriter Nelson Gidding) are going for a documentary-like feel, even starting with a disclaimer that no classified information has been revealed in the film, and that the actual documentation will soon be released, as if this was a true story. The first job is the recovery of the satellite itself, and so team leader Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) and Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson) go in hazmat suits and explore the carnage. (There is a wholly gratuitous shot of a nude young woman among the victims, almost as if Wise was acknowledging he could now get away with such things under the then relatively new rating system. Nevertheless, the film was rated G.) The scientists find the satellite, which a local doctor has foolishly opened, and they make two other discoveries. First, whatever it is that happened has caused its victims' blood to turn into powder. Second, there are two survivors: a colicky baby and an old drunk.

Stone and Hall are joined by two other colleagues, Dr. Charles Dutton (David Wayne) and Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid). Now their work is cut out for them. They have to figure out what's causing the deaths and they have to figure out what the baby and the drunk have in common that make them seemingly immune. However before they can get to work they have to go to a secure site that, at Stone's urging, had been built for just such an eventuality. It is a five level underground facility that becomes increasingly sterile as they descend. The film spends a great deal of time establishing just how thorough the cleansing process is, including radiation, inoculations, examinations, suppositories, and a color-coded change of clothing at each level. The clothes from the previous level are summarily burned.

There's another twist that will provide the necessary suspense late in the film. The facility is equipped with a nuclear device. Should the infectious material escape the place will self-destruct before it can get out. Once the device is triggered it can only be stopped by one man who will have only five minutes to get to one of the turn-off points to use his key. That key is entrusted to Dr. Hall under a theory that a single man with no children is most apt to look at the situation objectively rather than assume the risk of infectious outbreak because of emotional attachments on the outside.

It's a bit of hokum you can buy or not, but while it leads to the inevitable race against the clock late in the film, the real point of the movie is watching the scientists at work, realizing that they are both professionals and fallible human beings. One scientist turns out to have epilepsy but has been keeping it secret to avert losing government clearances. Another is aware of the real nature of the facility—which has more to do with creating offensive capabilities for the military than in research. At one point crucial information is withheld from the team because a bell signaling an incoming message has been inadvertently disabled by a piece of paper.

However for all that, what comes across is that these are dedicated experts doing the best they can to avert a crisis. The screw-ups are overcome. The secret government agenda is almost a footnote to the story. (If this had been made just a few years later, post-Watergate, the film might have ended with one of the scientists dropping a dime on the project by tipping off the Washington Post.) The discovery of the nature of the infectious agent and how to combat it is almost elegant, requiring not major weapons—or major special effects—but some basic knowledge of chemistry. Only at the very end do we get the cynicism about science that would soon become a hallmark of Crichton's film legacy. The virus has mutated into a form that no longer affects humans and action is taken to destroy the invader once and for all. Yet a computer tracking the mutation soon starts flashing the number "601," which we have earlier been told is code for the computer being overloaded with too much information. Something has happened to the virus that is beyond the computer's ability to track. The end.

The Andromeda Strain is probably the closest we will ever get in a film by or derived from Crichton in which scientists are essentially the good guys, and their work averts rather than creates a catastrophe. The satellite project is attributed more to civilian and military officials in the government, and the downbeat ending is as much of a throwaway as is the revelation of the lab as a possible biological warfare facility. This might be attributed to the fact that Crichton's anti-science bias was not yet really developed in a body of work that was just getting underway. Additionally, Wise was a director who, more often than not, told stories that were more hopeful than bleak, even when dealing with corporate greed (Executive Suite) or capital punishment (I Want to Live!). In his science fiction film he at least allowed for the potential that humanity would eventually do the right thing, even if they stumbled along the way.

The Andromeda Strain stands out as a truly unusual film for its era. The personal histories of the scientist are largely backstory. The one woman scientist is decidedly older and not involved in any contrived romantic subplot. It is an intelligent, well-made movie speculating about a scientific problem we may well face in the future and seem to have already confronted with several potential plagues originating here on Earth. Scientists without any inherent sex appeal are our heroes. Later Crichton himself as well as his adaptors would make scientists and technicians the bad guys in movies like Westworld The Terminal Man, Runaway, Coma (based on the Robin Cook novel and directed by Crichton), Looker, Sphere, Jurassic Park, and Timeline. Whether by accident or design, science became part of the problem. For the moment though, in The Andromeda Strain, science was still part of the solution.


Copyright © 2009, Daniel M. Kimmel. All Rights Reserved.

About Daniel M. Kimmel

Daniel M. Kimmel is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. His reviews can be found at rottentomatoes.com. He is local correspondent for Variety and teaches film at Suffolk University, including a course on SF. His book on the history of FOX TV, The Fourth Network (Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2004), received the Cable Center Book Award. He is also author of The Dream Team -- The Rise and Fall of DreamWorks: Lessons from the New Hollywood . His essay, "The Batman We Deserve," appears in Batman Unauthorized, an entry in the SmartPop series from BenBella Books. His latest book is I'll Have What She's Having -- Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies.

COMMENTS!

Aug 8, 01:01 by IROSF
Comment below!
Aug 8, 14:39 by Nader Elhefnawy
Thanks for another interesting article Mr. Kimmel, and I quite agree about Crichton's tendencies here.

Incidentally, it's been argued that this was an important reason for his popularity, which was much greater than that of any other "hard" science fiction writer of the last couple of decades, if not longer. (He was in fact the 4th biggest selling novelist of the 90s, period, right behind just John Grisham, Stephen King and Danielle Steele, and right ahead of Tom Clancy, according to a report by CNN at the end of that decade.)

One could analyze this particular factoid forever, but looking over the body of his work, particular later books (some of which were SF, and some of which weren't), it seems he increasingly pursued the course of shameless button-pushing-as in Rising Sun, Disclosure and State of Fear (which made him a hero to the Cato Institute crowd, which all but feted him in a minor event covered on C-SPAN).

Playing on the public's suspicion of science and scientists, even when it was through increasingly lousy storytelling (Prey, the last of his books I even looked at, was really thin, lame stuff, even by simple thriller standards) was just one dimension of that.

Unfortunately the sales figures testify to the commercial effectiveness of the strategy.
Aug 11, 04:31 by Daniel M. Kimmel
Thanks. It was interesting to revisit "The Andromeda Strain" after all the years of subsequent Crichton films.

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