Almost from the very dawn of cinema, movies have been wrestling with the question of what life from other planets might be like. Go back to 1902 and one of the very first films made — Le Voyage dans la Lune, by George Melies — portrays inhabitants of the moon, Selenites, as evil, dangerous creatures, all in its short 14 minutes running time.
The entire alien invasion theme was driven to new heights when our fear of communism peaked in the 1950s and spawned more sci-fi horror films than I can name, both good and bad. Examples? Invasion of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, It Came from Outer Space, and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, just to name a few.
The theme has stuck with us, and whether it’s Alien, Independence Day, Contact, or even Mars Attacks or even Earth Girls are Easy, we are clearly fascinated by the question of whether there is life off-planet and what the inevitable encounter we’ll some day have, if so.
The key question, of course, is good or bad? Are the aliens benign highly intelligent beings that will help us rise to the next evolutionary level (as suggested in the brilliant 2001: A Space Odyssey) or are they malevolent, amoral who see our planet as a simple real estate acquisition or us as a source of fresh meat or entertainment (lots of these, but I’ll just point out that’s the basic concept behind Predator)?
What if, instead, an alien life form turns out to be something as seemingly innocuous as a virus or bacterium? What if it’s not a shiny metal spaceship at all?
Production still from “The Andromeda Strain”
That’s the basic premise of the 1971 Robert Wise film The Andromeda Strain. Written by Michael Crichton, it stars Arthur Hill as Dr. Jeremy Stone, David Wayne as Dr. Charles Dutton, James Olson as Dr. Mark Hall and Kate Reid in a standout performance as Dr. Ruth Leavitt.
The story: The U.S. Army has had a satellite — Scoop VII — crash into the small town of Piedmont, New Mexico and then, most inexplicably, every single resident of the town dies quickly and peculiarly, except for a squalling infant and a drunken old man. Why?
The U.S. Government initiates “Project Wildfire” and assembles a group of top scientists to identify and contain the threat in a highly sophisticated five-story biomedical hazard facility buried below an innocent shack on a test farm in the middle of nowhere, Nevada.
Can they accurately identify and then contain the biological threat to humanity in time?
What I really like about this film is its pacing: it alternates between long, slow tedious scientific work and moments of great drama and tension. It’s not like the thrillers we get on the big screen today, but it works brilliantly, and the contrast between the rational scientist and the all-too-human foibles that each have when put under extraordinary pressure makes for another fascinating layer of story.
If you haven’t seen this film, rent it, pop up a bowl of popcorn, draw the blinds and enjoy one of the more interesting hard science thrillers from the early 1970s.