Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Review: The Andromeda Strain

The Andromeda Strain (1971): English, 169 min, directed by Robert Wise, written by Nelson Gidding (based on the novel by Michael Crichton), starring Arthur Hill, James Olson, Kate Reid, David Wayne, Paula Kelly and George Mitchell. The government decides it'd be a good idea to launch satellites that scoop air from the edge of space, hoping to find a biological weapon that the Soviets can't counter. There's no way this can go wrong!

System 1 rating: 154, or 10011010
System 2 rating: 140, or 10001100

Of course, things do go very obviously wrong, but fortunately there's a top-secret government project to protect against the remote possibility of an alien disease breaking out on Earth, and they're quickly rounded up in scenes that allow each character to demonstrate their defining personality trait: the no-nonsense leader and organizer of the program, Dr. Jeremy Stone; the kindly older man, Dr. Charles Dutton; the grumpy anti-authoritarian woman, Dr. Ruth Leavitt; and the perpetually annoyed young surgeon (I can only that was his personality trait), Dr. Mark Hall.

But let's be fair: the reason we're here is that we want to see some science fiction. We want to see crazy shit brought to life on screen, and the next scene, featuring Hall and Stone, provides in the form of a town whose inhabitants appear to have all died seemingly where they stand. The perceptive surgeon soon realizes their blood has completely clotted when they make a cut on a corpse and it spills out like sand. Eerie things are clearly afoot, so they pick up the satellite and two survivors they found, and transport them all to the safety of nearly an hour of exposition, split up only by an endless decontamination process for the four scientists.

So okay, Andromeda Strain takes its pleasant time getting to the interesting science parts, the "how does Michael Chrichton make looking through a microscope so tense?" scenes I remember from the book when I read it so many years ago, but that's okay. Science fiction films, especially older ones, often have problems with exposition. The thing I can say for Andromeda is that it at least plays its exposition against the setpiece of the hyper-advanced lab. It's hard to look from my 21st century understanding of computers on the "bleeding edge" of lab sophistication as depicted in 1971, but there's still cool stuff going on, like the room that burns off the outer layer of your skin.

I'll stop summarizing the plot here, because watching the scientific discoveries unfold is really the main reason to be watching this movie, but unfortunately I can't passionately argue here that you should sit through the movie for the compelling and fascinating science parts because frankly they're only a little less dry than the exposition. There are a number of scenes that work perfectly well throughout the film, they're just invariably split up with scenes that drag on too long and too often sound like the scientists are talking down to each other. I know they're actually talking down to the audience, not each other, but it strains our belief in the world of the story. I'd rather a movie leave me behind than keep me waiting.

The movie has really cool special effects, which it's careful not to show off often enough to stretch its budget. The actors play their lamentably underwritten roles laudably, particularly Kate Reid as the irascible Dr. Leavitt. (As an aside, you could arguably make a drinking game out of every moment of casual sexism in the film, but I suspect the average male wouldn't realize how much drinking this would entail.) While the editing could possibly be blamed for not saving the dead spaces in the pacing, it frequently makes the scenes that work far more interesting than they have any right to be, particularly when it employs split-screen effects.

The biggest problem is that the pacing needs a serious kick in the ass. I remember the exposition in the book being interesting, and fortunately for my understanding of the plot I remembered most of it, but this is the kind of movie that, had it played in one of my film classes later at night, and I had gotten up particularly early that day, I might have woken up halfway through and been terminally confused until the lights came up and the professor started lecturing.

Systems 1 and 2 evaluation

Rewatch Value: Yes

So I know I went on a rant about not really recommending this movie, and it not being good, but here's the thing – it's certainly not bad. For me personally, watching movies that almost work, or that don't work but have really interesting elements, is almost as rewarding (if not more so) than watching a near-perfect one. I like watching a movie and figuring out what didn't work and why, and what should have been done, because as an aspiring filmmaker I want to be able to identify those moments in my own work, preferably at a time when I can still correct them. The Andromeda Strain is two films – a really good, contemplative look at man's struggle against the unknown, and a mediocre science fiction B-movie – that were put in a blender together, and the result spooled between two reels. Next time I watch it, I'll know when to tune out.

Personal Connection: No

I read the book as a kid at my dad's recommendation – I suspect he preferred me reading Michael Crichton to Tom Clancy, and was trying to steer me in the right direction – and while I remember enjoying it, I don't remember having to read the same page six times because I was trying to read it while walking (true story, Lord of the Rings is that good), and when I first saw the movie shortly after all I could focus on (like any good aspiring nerd) minor divergences from the book. The story doesn't touch me in any particular way, and the only character I really unreservedly like (take a guess which) is still too broadly drawn to be taken as a fully real, complex human being.

Emotional Impact: No

I guess I covered this already in that last sentence, but more than that, I want to take this opportunity to rail on Michael Crichton's stories more broadly. I haven't read anything else he's written, but I've seen three film adaptations of his work now (the other two were Jurassic Park and The 13th Warrior) and the biggest problem I have with all of them is that they never seem to matter too much. They take really interesting ideas and hold them up and say, "Look at this idea, it's really interesting," and don't ever seem to delve deeper. In fact, one of my favorite parts of Andromeda Strain watching it now was the ending [[NOT REALLY A SPOLER BUT IF YOU'RE PARTICULARLY ALLERGIC TO SPOILERS SKIP THIS SENTENCE]] when, in a report to a Senate committee on the outcome of the events, a senator asks regarding the possibility of future outbreaks of alien diseases, "Well, what d we do?" and Dr. Stone replies, "Exactly, senator. What do we do?"

It's the only stab at social relevance or deeper meaning the story takes, and if I recall correctly it's not in the book (though I admit it's been a while). This story in particular, and Crichton's stories in general, don't seem to delve at all into the story arc of humanity as a whole, which is what science fiction is supposed to do, and why it's so often forgiven by its supporters (you might say apologists) for not delving as deeply into the story arcs of its characters. If you're not going to try to discuss the evolution (or at least nature) of human society and the human race in general, you at least need to make the characters more complex than are found in this (or any other) Crichton adaptation.

Goals of Cinema: No

In my previous reviews, I've said that the goal of cinema is "to entertain," and while I think that's a gross oversimplification it's close enough that I'll use it to deny Andromeda these 16 (or 32 under System 1) points. The movie has great scenes, but has too many scenes that drag for the film as a whole to be said to be entertaining.

Goals of Art: Yes

I've also said that the goal of art is "to explore," and again with the caveat that this is overly simplistic I answer this a yes. Adaptation is difficult, especially for a dense piece of hard science fiction. The film stays remarkably true to the book and its dedication to scientific facts, while trying its best to fit it all into an already remarkable runtime (I didn't say anything about the runtime before, but this movie is almost as long as The Thin Red Line). The frequent editing experiments serve to try to cram character moments around the dry expository scenes, so if anything the film could have done away further with conventions and tried to liven up the lengthy lectures from Dr. Stone. (In fact, the film occasionally does exactly this, using voiceovers and slightly disjointed shots to convey things that otherwise would have been impossible. If only they'd done this more often, they might have had a hell of a movie.)

Intent: Yes

If my unceasing attempts at saying "I know this sounds really bad, but it's not nearly that bad" haven't tipped you off, or you didn't catch on to my repeated championing of the film's good moments, this should be an excellent movie. (In fact, I'll tell you exactly what movie it should have been on Thursday when I talk about Contagion.) There's no hidden 2001 buried in here, but there's at least a Blade Runner.

a. Artistic: Yes

I have lamented the lack of characterization, but I do not feel like that can be said to be an "intention." No one intends to write shallow characterization; they either intend to have complex, interesting characters, or simply don't have any strong intentions towards the characters. Sometimes this lack of strong intention manifests itself in shallow, stupidly drawn characters that reveal the writer to be a cynical hack who probably spends his paycheck on a cushy L.A. apartment and a lot of tequila. In this case, it manifests itself in characters that clearly have human behavior, but who haven't been given time to fully develop because the writer was too busy trying to squeeze in as much exposition as possible from a book that's almost entirely expository. The fact that this movie is 169 minutes long should show that no one wanted to gloss over characterization – they just had a lot of material to get through. Their intentions, thus, were noble.

b. Technical: Yes

I can't seem to go two sentences without praising the split-screen editing sequences, but they are genius. I don't know if they were done that way deliberately or an invention to cut down on runtime without losing coverage, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and just say that this was an ingenious technical experiment, and more films should be that willing to experiment with the form to this degree. That they should have gone further in the execution does not make their intentions any less brilliant.

Execution: No

Having answered the last four (or two? three? I don't know how I should count these) questions in the affirmative, I've got to give some more negative answers, and that undoubtedly comes in the execution. While I've gone on and on about how great certain scenes are, the whole product just doesn't work cohesively together. This happens for two reasons, which are conveniently separated into the next two questions.

a. Artistic: No

The problem, in case I haven't articulated exactly this a dozen times before, isn't strictly that there is too much exposition, but that it's presented so unremarkably. If there was an antonym of "captivating" it would describe nearly half the scenes in the film, and every single one of them tests the viewer's patience, not with continuing to watch, but continuing to care.

b. Technical: No

"But what of the scenes you claim are brilliant?" I hear my almost certainly fictional readership cry out in unison. "Surely the split-screen technique merits a Yes for technical execution?" Alas, dearest nonexistent reader, it was a wonderful idea, but was woefully underused, particularly in places where it could have served to liven up the exposition. Indeed, the blandness is reenforced by an alarming lack of interest in doing anything distracting (please!) with the camera or lighting or editing or... You know, I feel like I've made these points several times already.

Themes and Morals: No

I addressed this earlier, because I forgot about this category, but what I said about Crichton's stories still applies. The film at least tries to dress the plot up in real-world importance, but where the scene is clearly meant to feel like the film is looking back at the sinking Titanic having learned an important lesson, it feels more like it's desperately clinging to a piece of wood, hoping it keeps floating until dawn.


I'm still working on the exact format I want these reviews to take. I feel like I should put my conclusions about the film here, after I've gone through and "taken it apart" via the questions, but I kind of stated my conclusions in the beginning, and I rather like the way it flows from the synopsis. It feels like it allows me to discuss the film better, and then elaborate in the answers to the questions. (I seem to have elaborated rather too much, but as I said, I'm still working on it.)

Andromeda gets a 154 (under System 1) or a 140 (under System 2). Quick recap of the scores for the other three movies I've done full reviews of so far: Lebowski has 253 or 255, Gun Crazy has 231 or 178, Ils has 100 or 56. Either way, Andromeda comes in between Gun Crazy and Ils, but under System 1 it comes in slightly closer to Ils and under System 2 it comes in much closer to Gun Crazy. Perhaps due to System 2 being an adjustment to offset perceived deficiencies based on the Gun Crazy and Ils reviews, their scores are significantly different under the two systems, while Andromeda received around the same score both times.

Perhaps, then, System 1 wasn't as off as I was worried, and I simply scored Gun Crazy too high. Still, even in this case I would say I'm much more comfortable with the films' scores under System 2. I hated Ils, I found Andromeda frustratingly mediocre, I thought Gun Crazy was fun but a bit silly, and Lebowski is, well, Lebowski. I feel like there should be a lot more room between "hated" and "not terrible with moments of brilliant" than System 1 appears to show between Ils and Andromeda, but I will continue to use both systems for at least the next three reviews to get a better sampling size.

Coming Thursday: a disease not from space, but from a bat pooping on a pig! And, it turns out, a film that is vastly superior in almost every respect. Contagion!

(Coincidental note, this film was directed by Robert Wise, who also did The Day The Earth Stood Still, which will be up for review in two weeks. Contagion was directed by Steven Soderbergh, who also did the "remake" of Solaris, which will be up three weeks from Thursday. The only other repeated director this month is back-to-back Ridley Scott. Turns out science fiction is made by the same people continually coming back to the genre. Not that other genres have this problem. John Ford and westerns. Scorsese and gangsters... Nope. Just science fiction. Weird, huh?)

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