After a satellite crashes near a New Mexico village, the local residents begin dying out, the victims of a killer disease. By the time a team of scientists have arrived to investigate, the only survivors are an old tramp and an infant child. The team transfer them to an underground lab and work around the clock to identify the virus - which, it transpires, is somehow connected to an Earth bacteria-warfare project. Starring Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson, Kate Reid, and Paula Kelly.
Long before he became the creator of 'Jurassic Park' or its attendant movie franchise, Michael Crichton was a med student at Harvard who wrote potboiler paperback thrillers on the side under a couple of pseudonyms so that his professors wouldn't know how he wasted his free time between classes. Eventually, he grew disillusioned with a career in medicine and transitioned to writing full time. Fortunately, he was successful at it. The medically-themed science fiction thriller 'The Andromeda Strain' was the first novel Crichton published under his own real name. It hit the bestseller lists and caught the attention of Hollywood, which jumped quickly to produce a movie adaptation helmed by no less than multiple Oscar winner Robert Wise ('West Side Story', 'The Sound of Music'). A young writer still trying to build his reputation could hardly ask for a better turn of luck.
The film version of 'The Andromeda Strain' takes a cue from the book by presenting its story as a factual docudrama based on Classified reports – even though it's actually fictional, obviously. To aid in the verisimilitude, Wise cast only character actors, with no big star to play a dashing hero who will clearly save the day. These characters, while brilliant in their respective fields, are nondescript and almost disposable as individuals. The film offers no comfort that any of them will succeed in their tasks or even survive to the end.
To get the plot rolling, a military satellite crashes to Earth and the soldiers sent to retrieve it discover that a small desert town has been wiped out, dead bodies strewn everywhere with no discernible cause of death. Fearing that a virulent contagion has been unleashed, the Army immediately quarantines the area and declares a press blackout. Only two survivors are found, a squalling baby and a cantankerous old man. They seem to have nothing in common that would make them immune to the plague.
A team of the most qualified doctors and scientists is assembled and brought to a secret, multi-leveled underground lab beneath the Nevada desert, where they must analyze the evidence to identify the cause of the epidemic and determine if it can be stopped. When signs point to a bacterial organism of possibly extraterrestrial origin that they can barely comprehend, their first recommendation is to sterilize the hot zone with no less than a nuclear detonation as promptly as possible. Unfortunately, that action is delayed due to political waffling within the government. With each passing moment, the likelihood that this outbreak may spread to catastrophic result increases exponentially. Even inside the high-tech lab, it threatens to escape from containment. If that should happen, the doctors' only recourse would be their own nuclear self-destruction, which will be automatically triggered at the first sign of a breach.
Crichton's story is a bit fantastical and I'm sure that some of the science doesn't hold up, but the writer had a knack for making even the most far-fetched ideas (like resurrecting dinosaurs!) seem completely plausible and attainable with contemporary technology. He sells the concept of an alien bacteria by focusing on fascinating procedural details, from the doctors' rigorous decontamination routine to their methodical process-of-elimination to determine the organism's size. Director Wise then contributes to the mounting suspense with tense editing and slightly off-kilter shot choices (lots of low angles and split-diopter effects) that leave viewers with a feeling of unease right up through the nerve-jangling climax.
Aside from some costume and production design that may date it to the early 1970s, the movie still feels very modern and fresh. The story doesn't seem like it would need hardly any updating to move it to the present day. (Note that I have not seen the 2008 TV remake, but I hear it's pretty lousy and doesn't have a patch on this version.) What flaws the film has are mostly the work of a young author still honing his craft. The dialogue is sometimes excessively explanatory (for the audience's benefit) when these professionals at the top of their fields would not need to have everything spelled out to them so redundantly. Some personality conflicts among the characters are obviously contrived to create drama. One doctor hides a medical condition from the others for no good reason, and another tries to take lazy shortcuts in his research when he should damn well know better considering the stakes. The movie also closes on a limp, gimmicky ending.
Regardless, 'The Andromeda Strain' is a true model of suspense filmmaking that holds up extraordinarily well today. Although it was only a modest box office hit in 1971, the movie brought some additional attention to Michael Crichton as an emerging author, and helped to launch his career as one of the eventual masters of the techno-thriller genre.
On February 17th, 2015, Universal Studios Home Entertainment released 'The Andromeda Strain' on Blu-ray as a Best Buy retailer exclusive, concurrently with 'Sneakers' and 'Munich'. 'The Andromeda Strain' will expand to general retail on July 14th.
The disc automatically starts the movie upon insertion into a Blu-ray player and has no Top Menu screen, just a pop-up menu. I find this annoying.
The Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is a bit of a mixed bag. The film elements used for the scan are plagued by regular speckles and scratches. Not much effort has been made to clean them up. A lot of the footage is also extremely grainy, in a way that looks like a print several generations removed from the negative.
The 2.35:1 image is frequently soft, and occasionally downright blurry. The roughest patches are probably dupes and composites (of which the movie has many), which is somewhat excusable, but a lot of them look really bad – so bad that I don't believe their appearance here is endemic to the movie. I can't imagine that a craftsman of Robert Wise's caliber would release a film to theaters with a number of shots that look completely out of focus. I have to assume that this is a fault in the source used for the video transfer. (A few shots even look like they've been upconverted from standard definition video.)
With that said, some scenes look better than others. At its best, in bright daylight or otherwise well-lit shots, the picture can be pleasingly clear and detailed, with good colors and contrast. It's rarely among the sharpest imagery you'll see in high-definition, but it's certainly not the worst either. For a catalog title from Universal, the transfer is uncharacteristically free of objectionable Digital Noise Reduction artifacts or other overt digital processing. That's a step in the right direction for the studio. However, a fresh film scan from higher quality elements undoubtedly could have made a big improvement to the results.
The movie's soundtrack is encoded on disc in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono format. IMDb claims that 70mm release prints for 'The Andromeda Strain' had a 6-track sound mix, while the 35mm prints had mono. If true (of which I'm not certain), the 6-track version was evidently either lost or otherwise not available for this Blu-ray transfer.
For mono, the sound mix is surprisingly robust. The movie has a pulsing musical score that's deliberately confrontational in nature, and a lot of interesting (sometimes very loud) sound effects that contribute to the suspense.
On the other hand, despite lossless encoding (remember, this was originally an analog soundtrack that had to be digitized, so the concept of "lossless" is relative), the audio fidelity on disc isn't ideal. The music is a bit harsh, and many of those sound effects are overly bright.
Universal last released 'The Andromeda Strain' on DVD back in 2003. That disc didn't come with many bonus features, but the few it had have all been carried over to Blu-ray. Sadly, the two most important participants in these features – director Robert Wise and author Michael Crichton – have since passed away.
Even four decades later, Robert Wise's film adaptation of Michael Crichton's sci-fi thriller 'The Andromeda Strain' is still a cracking piece of suspense. The Blu-ray has only adequate picture and sound, but it'll do. It seems very unlikely that Universal would remaster a title like this anytime soon.