The late Sixties were a boom-time for science-fiction. The New Wave was taking hold of the genre, with its emphasis on psychology, ecology and sociology and its de-emphasis of technology. In that respect sci-fi reflected its times– as at the end of World War II, people in the Sixties felt they were living in a science-fiction world, with moon landings, the first alarms over the Earth’s ecology, the looming threat of nuclear obliteration, and the first moments of what would become the information revolution, all coinciding with the social and sexual revolution in the culture. Inevitably, that turmoil and fear found expression in science-fiction.
Science-fiction movies reflected the times, as well, although sometimes the reflection was just damned odd. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) set a new standard in cinema, at least for effects (it was roundly panned and parodied for its pretentious and obscure story-line, however). Between its release and the opening of Star Wars in May, 1977, a significant number of science-fiction films were produced. The results were pretty mixed– some of these were classics (Soylent Green), others were disasters (Logan’s Run), and some were just off the wall (Zardoz).
Some of these films represented serious attempts at film treatments of science-fiction themes from the New Wave– Rollerball, for example, looked at the role of the individual in a corporate world that manipulated popular, violent entertainments to keep the masses distracted. Some films had ambitions in that direction but failed to realize them (Z.P.G.). And some just didn’t care (Trog).
Perhaps the greatest sci-fi movie of this period is The Andromeda Strain (1971)–
Michael Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain, published in 1969, took a different tack with the theme of alien invasion– not militaristic hordes, but a microscopic form of life. It was alien invasion as epidemic, and it was brilliant. The film was directed by Robert Wise (who apparently could direct anything— we’re talking about a guy who directed The Sound of Music, then turned around and made The Sand Pebbles), and captures the book admirably. Crichton’s novel was the first of his taut techno-thrillers, and that carries over into the movie.
It starts out with an air of ominous quiet– an Air Force team of two men has been sent by night to the tiny town of Piedmont, Arizona, to retrieve an errant American satellite. Something goes badly wrong– but the horror is conveyed only by the team’s radio transmissions and the reactions of the technicians in an operations center, listening to them. An aerial photo-reconnaissance shows bodies lying all over the town, and a secret team of scientists is activated to investigate the mystery.
This film combines action, mystery, and solid scientific insight in a package that never flags, even when the characters are discussing technical issues that could have, in lesser hands, killed the story dead. Wise somehow managed to make the very gear in the secret, super-scientific lab in which the scientists study the alien organism into characters in the story. He makes the scientists into real people rather than stereotypes, right down the foul-mouthed female scientist with a secret and the elderly biologist who is ready to chuck the whole academic thing and go live in Alaska. At the climatic moment, as a nuclear self-destruct counts down (a blast that will only feed the alien microbe, not destroy it) the whole facility seems to turn against the people struggling to survive inside it.
The film plays out, in part, as a semi-documentary, flashing forward to secret government hearings dissecting the mistakes and failures of the team and their laboratory during the crisis. The back and forth in time, however, does not kill the tension of the moment, as the scientists struggle to understand what they have on their hands. The dawning horror of what they’ve discovered is liberally mixed with scientific curiosity and awe.
Many critics did not like the pace of the film, thinking it moved too slowly. That criticism makes no sense to me. Personally, I think of The Andromeda Strain as a quintessential thriller, building tension while the mystery, and the terror, is revealed piece-by-piece. True scientific endeavor is an effort to understand mysteries, and for me there is something fascinating about a team of scientists struggling against the clock to figure out what is happening (perhaps it’s telling that I also liked 2011’s Contagion). If I am ever inspired to write a thriller, this film, as well as the book, would point the way for me.
Of course, Hollywood tried to remake the story, as a mini-series in 2008– and, just as predictably, they botched it, departing in significant ways from the original material. I do not recommend it. Just once, I would like to see Hollywood not mess with something that is perfectly all right as it is.
Of course, that will be about the same time pigs get wings….