As a young child I remember that the Steven Spielberg film Jurassic Park was not so much a film as it was an event. I was lucky enough to be taken to the film by my bug brother Tommy at the tender age of eight years old. I had begged to see the film and they allowed it. This was my first encounter with the writing of Michael Crichton and I remember being absolutely spellbound by the film (and the very different video games on SNES, Sega Genesis, and Sega CD.) I loved the film so much that I read the book. It took me most of a year, but I read it in the second grade. I have been a fan of Michael Crichton since then. When I saw that Arrow Video was bringing his an adaptation of his classic novel The Andromeda Strain to Blu-ray, I was excited. While I had not read the novel, I had been aware of it for a quarter century. After watching half of the film, I was enjoying the proceeds so much that I started to read the novel. Within the next couple days I had completed viewing the film and reading the novel.
The opening credits read: “ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: This film concerns the four-day history of a major American scientific crisis. We received the generous help of many people attached to Project Scoop at Vandenberg Air Force Base and the Wildfire Laboratory in Flatrock, Nevada. They encouraged us to tell the story accurately and in detail. The documents presented here are soon to be made public. They do not in any way jeopardize the national security.”
In Piedmont, New Mexico two government workers tasked with locating a downed satellite see buzzards flying over the town. They are reporting back to an Air Force base in California. They report that the town is full of dead bodies. When the base loses contact with the men on the ground they order a flyby. The jet surveillance confirms that the townspeople have all presumably perished. The Air Force recruits Nobel Prize winning scientist Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) to help with the situation. His team is recruited and given security clearance. The senate are briefed in a closed session. Stone has been allowed to assemble his team due to a letter he wrote to the president two years earlier. In the letter he addressed the need for a special team and facility to deal with any illness that may be extraterrestrial in origin. He also wanted to be authorized to have a nuclear failsafe to deploy if their attempts to understand the illness fail. The scientists arrive in Piedmont wearing special suits to investigate the cause of death for the town. The bodies show signs that the blood was clotting in the victims to the point of disintegration into a substance similar to sand. This transformation is not possible from any organism on earth… until now. When the scientists find two survivors, they carry out their investigation within the confines of Project Wildfire – an underground five level ultrasecure facility designed to truly decontaminate the scientists so they can carry out their research. They also implement their single male policy – they task the only person without a family with the task of stopping or allowing the facility to be destroyed by a nuclear blast if the organism spreads. This nuclear blast will be automatically triggered by the base itself and he holds the only key to shut off the response.
The Andromeda Strain is a Universal Picture directed by Robert Wise. It features striking cinematography by Richard H. Klein. It was filmed in Panavision and colored in Technicolor, which as far as I am concerned is the golden standard. This is a big widescreen production. Visually the film holds up beautifully. The film fills the screen with a lot to take in. Considering that the film is claustrophobic in nature, I appreciated that it was shot in widescreen instead of full frame. I was prepared for an interesting science fiction film but I was happy to see the stylish flourishes that the film was given. Robert Wise had been directing films dating back to the classic Val Lawton produced RKO pictures Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatchers. He also directed the classic science fiction film The Day The Earth Stood Still. He still had a great touch and showed no signs of resting on his laurels with his approach to Crichton’s material.
The film features music by Gil Mellè. The compositions for the film are unique but definitely not anything I would listen to outside the confines of the film. The screenplay by Nelson Gidding is incredibly faithful to the source novel. I read the novel essentially in tandem to watching the film and it is essentially a perfect adaptation. That said – the approach in both the film and novel relies on a documentary style rendition of the events in the film. Some will probably find themselves a little bit lost in the minutiae or potentially bored for a few moments. Personally, I enjoyed this approach and felt it gave the film (and novel) a lot more authenticity than most science fiction projects. The acting in the film is solid and doesn’t feature many big names. The best performance is Arthur Hiller’s but all the supporting cast do well in their respective roles.
Video: How’s it look?
Arrow Video have provided a brand new 1080p HD transfer that was remastered specifically for this release using an MPEG-4 AVC encode from a 4K scan. The film is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Here is what the booklet had to say:
“The Andromeda Strain has been exclusively restored by Arrow Films and is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 with mono audio.
The original 35mm camera negative was scanned in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director at EFilm, Burbank. The film was graded on Digital Vision’s Nucoda Film Master and restored at R3Store Studios in London.
All materials for this restoration were made available by NBC Universal.”
Like I have mentioned before, films that were shot in Panavision and graded in Technicolor are essentially the golden standard. This transfer looks fantastic. The film has numerous scenes shot in daylight and all the color coded sequences in the Wildfire area look great. Fine detail is very good. The film has a fine field of grain that only adds to the filmic look. Fans should be excited to see the care put into this release.
Audio: How’s it sound?
The Andromeda Strain has been given an English LPCM Mono track. Here is what the booklet had to say:
“The original mono mix was remastered from the optical negatives at Deluxe Audio Services, Hollywood.”
This mono track was surprisingly effective. The film has a limited dynamic range but the eerie score and sound effects are all effective. While this sound design will not hold up against the robust efforts of today, it is a good example of well made sound design from that era.
Supplements: What are the extras?
Audio Commentary by Bryan Reesman – this is a pretty well done track. Full of information on the author, disaster films, and the film itself. Good stuff.
A New Strain of Science Fiction – British film expert Kim Newman gives an appraisal of the film and its impact on similar “virus outbreak” films. An enjoyable piece.
Making the Film – this fantastic archival featurette from the 2001 DVD release includes some excellent interviews with director Robert Wise, screenwriter Nelson Gidding, and author Michael Crichton. This is well worth your time – especially for fans of Wise or Crichton. Also – the infamous monkey sequence is discussed at length.
A Portrait of Michael Crichton – also from the 2001 DVD, this piece discusses the early career of Michael Crichton and discusses how the author began writing in medical school. This piece is valuable because the information in the piece largely comes from interviews with the novelist himself who is now deceased.
The Bottom Line
The Andromeda Strain is a well-written and incredibly faithful adaptation of the novel by Michael Crichton. Featuring a strong performance by Arthur Hiller, cinematography (in Panavision!) by Richard Kline, and direction by Robert Wise, the film works incredibly well for film lovers that have patience. This is science fiction at its most convincing. The new transfer by Arrow Video looks great. Fans will be happy to see the work that Arrow has put into this film.
Author’s Note: This film is rated G, but a woman’s breast is exposed for a couple seconds about fifteen minutes into the film. This will undoubtedly surprise anybody who expected this film to be more age appropriate than Shrek.