Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise)

Lone in the time of Corona

Best title recommendations when shut in your house waiting for the pandemic all-clear (which will come who knows when)? Escapist fare--musicals, comedies, tales of fantasy, adventure flicks that glorify can-do characters acting in marked contrast to us in our self-quarantined homes: helpless, frustrated, wondering what bleak future is in store.

If on the other hand you're of darker disposition and don't need movies like Aladdin or The Lion King to remind you of all the exotic locations you're never going to visit this year; if you'd rather watch films not to forget your present circumstance but to remind yourself that things could be much much worse--there's always Robert Wise's adaptation of Michael Crichton's first bestseller.

A satellite lands in the town of Piedmont, New Mexico, and all inhabitants have apparently died. The opening images feel harrowingly prescient: corpses littering a small town's streets, the stillness echoing Rome and Beijing (and more recently Los Angeles and New York) today. Nothing moves save vultures--but is that a baby crying?

The US government back then--unlike the present administration--has a plan in place: four members of the Wildfire team (the fifth is undergoing an appendectomy) have assembled in their lab, a spotless underground complex deep in the Nevada desert. Talk about self-isolation--the team descends five levels with the intent to decontaminate themselves inside and out, through xenon ultraflash, microbial baths, capsules designed to disinfect the gastrointestinal tract (you don't swallow it). The intent is to isolate the mysterious germ, leave behind all other possible microbiological candidates, but the unintended effect is to bury the four scientists so deep in this upside-down cathedral dedicated to science they lose touch of the outside world--an error that will eventually bite them in the ass.

The scientists wear white jumpsuits (they're paper) and walk past polished metal walls--color coded according to a military study on the effects of color on human psychology, or so the source text says (you're not certain because many of the articles cited by Crichton to justify his theories were invented). From deep red (the color of danger or blood, presumably of all things contaminated) to yellow (caution) to white (purity; you may safely proceed)--don't know about military studies but director Wise (or his production designer or perhaps Crichton himself) seems to know about dramatic chromatic progressions.

Crichton and Wise do manage, at least to these inexpert ears, to keep the technical jargon reasonably coherent; helps that we're shown early on what's at stake (a town where only tumbleweeds stroll) so we listen as if our lives depend on it. Helps that jazz artist Gil Melle evokes a sense of impending menace through his avant-garde tech score, all percussive electronic pulses, digitized cries, throbbing energies.

Crichton throws in a nuclear option: if a pathogen escapes, if the facility is irretrievably contaminated a nuclear bomb will be detonated, thoroughly sterilizing the lab and its surrounding areas. The only way to abort the automated procedure (there's a 5 minute delay) is for a member of the team to insert a key and disarm the device--the writer's way of fulfilling our longheld secret fantasy of literally holding the fate of the world (or at least an entire laboratory) in the palm of our hands. 

Not generally a big fan of Wise, a craftsman with not much personality to his style who, armed with a good script (Curse of the Cat People, The Haunting) or at least a good idea (this film), is capable of grand entertainment. Crichton (another craftsman-as-opposed-to-artist) uses telegram messages, radio transcripts, excerpts of news articles and textbooks to lend authenticity to his science fiction potboiler; Wise adds audio transmissions and video and film recordings, not to mention the remarkable special-effects work of Douglas Trumbull, James Shourt, Albert Whitlock, who created the microbial footage.

If the film is in any way disturbing, if it at all transcends its competently assembled parts, that's due to image of the reproducing bug (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen the film!). Wildfire's ultimate means of containment is nuclear; it's only fitting that the pathogen operates with an efficiency that surpasses an atomic reactor's. What's more frightening than an atomic explosion? A bug that eats atomic explosions, using the energy to create a supercolony on a planetary scale. Crichton combines our ancient fear of disease with our modern fear of nuclear annihilation; Wise realizes Crichton's concept with a fistful of phosphorescent triangles obeying the biblical directive to be fruitful and multiply, scattering across the screen in accelerating numbers

But (again skip if you haven't seen!) for all its deadliness there's something arbitrary about the strain--why is the ph level a weakness? Why does the bug mutate into a harmless eater of plastic? When the pathogen is finally isolated and revealed via electron microscope the image is remarkably symmetrical, echoing the surrounding apparatus though with a more elegant emerald demeanor. You look at the creature and think: nanobots. Was the strain a cloud of microscopic robots meant to explore the universe, perhaps collect data or deliver a message? The full discussion is in the novel, cut out of the film presumably for brevity's sake, reintroduced in the longer mini-series, because--well, because they can. Still prefer the film tho, mainly because Wise keeps the look gleamingly clean, all the more shocking when blood or worse is spattered across immaculate surfaces.

The film ends--as most science fiction films do--on an ominous note, with one of the Wildfire scientists testifying before a senate committee: "there's no guarantee that another 'biological crisis' won't occur again," the man admits. He has no final answers, and neither do we; as the strain's very existence demonstrates, things change, life mutates; we maintain our status quo complacency at our imminent peril. 

First published in Businessworld 3.20.20

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