The Andromeda Strain (1971)

“I never went in much for science fiction,” says a microbiology specialist near the beginning of The Andromeda Strain. His colleague, another world-renowned scientist, agrees, “Nor do I.” They’re on their way to the tiny, isolated town of Piedmont, Arizona, where the entirety of the population has suddenly and inexplicably dropped dead. A military satellite has dropped to Earth around there, and so the scientists are sent in to determine whether this contagion is the work of an alien virus or extraterrestrial organism. But they don’t get too carried away with this notion. They’re men and women of disciplined learning, after all, and their aim is to employ clear reason and decisive investigation to make sense of the disaster.

In a way, this exchange is a pretty perfect representation of many of the works of the late Michael Crichton. To most, Crichton is a genre writer (to most, actually, he might just be “the Jurassic Park guy”); that genre is science fiction, evidenced by Park and The Lost World, Westworld, Sphere, Timeline, Prey, and a few others. Crichton’s written plenty of thrillers outside the realm of science fiction, too, stories concerning train robbers and Japanese corporate espionage and pirates and eco-terrorism. But these never fully eclipsed Crichton’s reputation as a sci-fi guy, and whether he was writing prose or scripts his fascination with technological advancement always managed to shine through.

But that doesn’t mean Crichton is a sci-fi guy, despite his reputation and successful forays into the genre, and that exchange in The Andromeda Strain fittingly occurs in an opening scene of the first film adaptation of Crichton’s work. Strain is a precursor to plague and epidemic flicks like Outbreak, Contagion, countless onset-of-zombies flicks like World War Z, and basically any film that makes you want to wash your hands right after. Four elite scientists descend to a sterile military bunker known as Wildfire in order to study and eradicate the lethal strain, and they risk their own lives to understand the thing that’s has taken so many others. The strain — dubbed “Andromeda” (“ruler of men”) — is indeed an alien substance, and eventually the hyper-rational protagonists have to face facts. These facts, of course, are facts in the world of The Andromeda Strain; elsewhere, it seems mostly science fiction.

But it’s science fiction that’s also terrifyingly possible. Am I saying, necessarily, that it’s likely a green alien substance will land on our planet and cause our blood to turn to red sand until we all die? It’s not impossible, of course, but the point is more that Crichton’s storytelling makes it possible — probable, even — not only in our lifetime but very likely when we wake up tomorrow. Throughout his career Crichton had a knack for choosing topics and themes that are up-to-the-minute by the time the book is published, or even a year after publication. When the Crichton we’re discussing is Sci-Fi Crichton, this basically means that fact catches up to fiction with a startling velocity.

The Andromeda Strain is a prime example of that, becoming more and more relevant as global pandemics become a greater and greater fear. For a film set mostly in one underground bunker, the writing is strong and paced well throughout. There’s lots of techno-babble, scientists going on and on about the sterilization of their bodies and the methods by which they’re about to analyze this unfathomable microbe. I suppose it does seem a bit slow at times, but sometimes the writing is deceptively complex; there’s an exchange about the weather once the scientists arrive at Wildfire that seems totally cut-worthy, but a little contemplation might yield the realization that all of that was code-speak for admittance into Wildfire, doors opening before them every time they wonder if it’s about to rain.

That initial exchange — “I never went in much for science fiction” — characterizes Crichton’s Strain: this isn’t outlandish, suspend-your-disbelief sci-fi. These aren’t aliens that speak English. And these aren’t starry-eyed wonderers hoping that Andromeda is indeed an alien because, oh, how wonderful that would be, and how limitless the universe would be, and how many possibilities would be within humanity’s grasp, and so on and so on. It’s storytelling that impresses and entertains even those who claim to dislike the sci-fi genre, and it contains the same stuff that Jurassic Park contained years later: we didn’t scoff at the existence of dinosaurs, because why would we? They’re right there in front of us.

The Andromeda Strain is science fiction, but like most other Crichton stories it’s the kind of science fiction that’s immediately around the corner.

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