The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

Because rocks, bows and arrows, swords, guns, bombs and nuclear devices aren't enough to kill people, human beings had to develop something darker, more sinister, more downright evil, and more effective to help off our fellow man. Germ and biological warfare come on down! Based off a novel by Michael Crichton, 1971's The Andromeda Strain uses that new age weapon (of sorts) as a jumping off point in a story that must have seemed ahead of its time on its release. Now? Not so much.

Searching for a downed satellite, the U.S. Army discovers that almost the entire population of the desert town of Piedmont is dead, the bodies lining the street. What happened to all the people to cause them to drop dead? The satellite is found, recovered and brought to a top secret government facility -- dubbed Wildfire -- where it will be examined by a team of doctors, including Dr. Stone (Arthur Hill), Dr. Dutton (David Wayne), Dr. Hall (James Olson), a medical surgeon, and Dr. Leavitt (Kate Reid). Two survivors were found in Piedmont -- a 6-month old infant and an old man -- but can the team explain how/why they survived while also containing whatever caused the mass deaths? Danger is looming, something that could not only kill the team but thousands and maybe millions around the world.

Serial killers, world-killing storms, all creepy, but what about a disease that could wipe out the world? That's scary as hell, and in that way 'Andromeda' reminded me off The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean. It doesn't really matter what era, decade, region, country. A disease or virus that can't be stopped is a great villain. It is inhuman. So the premise is good/scary, and the story certainly has potential. Director Robert Wise assembled a set for this underground facility that resembles a spaceship -- curved hallways, sliding doors out of Star Trek, and a sanitary, ice cold feel to the proceedings. It is unsettling at times, incredibly creepy at others, and even gets the adrenaline flowing late. The only problem? Getting there.

Clocking in at 131 minutes, 'Andromeda' basically wastes most of its potential with a more-than leisurely pace. It feels like a documentary, presenting the inner workings of a government facility, like the viewer is privy to something we shouldn't be. That's all fine and dandy, but has a government lab ever been so dull? Add in an extraterrestrial virus/disease, and you would think we're talking instant classic, but.....not quite. To get down to the lab, our intrepid team of doctors must descend down five levels, going through extremely detailed procedures to basically rid themselves of as many germs and contaminants as possible. It's certainly different, but it's not exciting or interesting to watch in the least bit. Unfortunately after a great opening, this extended sequence kills all that momentum.

And that's the shame of it all. The bookends of the movie are classic, rivaling some of the best Twilight Zone episodes in terms of pure creepiness. Hill's Dr. Stone and Olson's Dr. Hall walking through the dead ghost town of Piedmont is eerie and downright chilling, the small population lying dead all around them, life gone in an instant because of some unseen, unrecognizable attacker. Decked out in hazmat suits, the doctors look other-worldly as they search for survivors and answers. The same goes for the finale, a little cliched but exciting nonetheless. The facility is equipped with a doomsday device, a nuclear bomb ready to explode if a virus -- any virus -- escapes and threatens the safety of the world. Set to blow up, Dr. Hall is given the task of disarming it, a single, middle-aged man who would be able to rationally look at the situation and perform his duty. Adrenaline-pumping with tension to spare, it's an exciting finale. Too bad then there was so much blah building up to it.

Because the focus is so much on the facility, the situation, and the doomsday scenario, all that's required of the cast are workmanlike performances. None really stand out as this small group of character actors take center stage. It was a wise choice not choosing bigger, more recognizable names because that would have taken away from some of the tension. As Dr. Hall, Olson is a bright spot, a medical surgeon who isn't wired the same way the others are, questioning where others don't. Hill's Stone is the driven -- even obsessed -- leader, Reid's Leavitt the cynical one, and Wayne's Dutton the logical thinker. No one else stands out, the story focusing almost exclusively on these four main characters. Not bad, but not great either, mostly because we're not given much of a reason to root for these folks.

Jumping off that thought, 'Andromeda' is neither very good nor very bad. The moments and scenes that work do so in grand fashion, but the ones that flop? They flop in a big way. A mixed bag in the end, a movie that's too long but has just enough potential and positive elements to recommend.

The Andromeda Strain <----trailer (1971): ** 1/2 /****

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