Review: THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971)

This blog post was written as part of MovieRob’s July 2018 Genre Grandeur theme: Bestselling/Popular Novel Adaptations

Long before Michael Crichton resurrected dinosaurs with “Jurassic Park” or even unleashed homicidal cowboy robots on unsuspecting guests (the first time) in WESTWORLD (1973), he wrote a now-classic tale of germ warfare and the scientists who are called in to deal with the aftermath of a satellite that crashes to Earth and unleashes a deadly microorganism.

Published in 1969, “The Andromeda Strain” put Michael Crichton’s name on the map. Compared to his later works such as “Timeline” and even “Jurassic Park”, “The Andromeda Strain” is a much more reserved, detached book that describes the attempts at analyzing the organism and diagnose two survivors with precision.

Renowned director Robert Wise took up the challenge of putting the novel on film. While the book was indeed a popular one, in a lot of ways it isn’t a likely candidate for a movie; it’s a testament to Wise and the crew he assembled that it works as well as it does. Aside from a race against a ticking clock in the final act, there is little action in the story. Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding do a fantastic job of taking what could have been tedious laboratory scenes and turns them into something unsettling and gripping. A sequence where two of the scientists examine the capsule in great detail is helped by revolutionary miniature special effects shots provided by Douglas Trumbull and James Shourt.

andromedastrain1Production designer Boris Levin and cinematographer Richard H. Kline team to provide a cold aesthetic to the entire film that works fantastically well (Wise and Kline would again team on the first Star Trek film, giving the Enterprise interiors a similar clinical feel). Gidding also deserves credit in his decision to inject a small bit of diversity into the film by making one scientists in the film a woman (all four are men in Crichton’s novel).

Wise also makes several other shrewd casting decisions. While none of the cast are complete unknowns (James Olson is probably the least recognizable face here), there are no stars in the film. In a behind-the-scenes interview, Wise explained that he would have had a hard time believing a big-name star (he cites Gregory Peck) as a scientist. Instead, actors such as Arthur Hill as the team lead, Jeremy Stone, ground the film with a sense of reality that I agree might have been lost with bigger names. Likewise, David Wayne and Kate Reid, who round out the main cast, are quite good in their roles.

The Music

As with his casting decisions, Robert Wise also thought outside of the box when it came to the score for THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN. Not wanting a traditional orchestral score, Wise turned to composer Gil Mellé, who was a pioneer in the realm of electronic and synthesized music. Mellé was most well known at the time for his theme to Rod Serling’s series “Night Gallery” and he had also scored episodes of “Columbo” and later scored “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.”

Mellé’s score to THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN is difficult to describe. It works quite well in the film, but can be somewhat unlistenable in places on its own. Largely nonmelodic, it reminds me somewhat of the classic Louis and Bebe Barron score for FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956).

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN main titles

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Did the CD version look like this too?

Much of the unique sound in the score comes from Mellé’s homemade instrument, the “percussotron.” While it is obviously incomplete, there is a very interesting clip on YouTube of Mellé demonstrating the instrument and its use in the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQ28Ze65ixE

Finally, I would be remiss in not mentioning that, while the album may be a somewhat difficult listen, the LP version of the score might be one of the coolest-looking records I have ever seen.

Final thoughts

The score does work quite well in the context of the film and only adds to the otherworldly, unnerving feeling that permeates throughout. While some of the technology may be dated now, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN works well as an effective scientific thriller that seems all-too plausible.