When coronavirus came stateside in early 2020, inaugurating what Bret Easton Ellis called the “Season of the Virus,” one of the most watched movies across all streaming and rental platforms was Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. I never saw the 2011 film about a respiratory pandemic and the world’s disastrous response, but as soon as everything shut down in March, that’s the movie people turned to: recent enough, by all accounts prescient, and perhaps perversely comforting. I had a remarkably powerful reaction to Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe when I watched it on March 15, a movie I always avoided due to its reputation as Dr. Strangelove’s square twin. Fail Safe is about mutually assured destruction, culminating in a nuclear holocaust that destroys the entire world.
The Andromeda Strain surely came up around this time 38 months ago, but it never popped off like Contagion, likely a much more active and entertaining movie. Robert Wise’s 1971 adaptation of the Michael Crichton bestseller is a slog filled with C-list actors (some really bad), interesting but clumsy use of split screen paneling, and “realistic” to a fault, with no gruesome deaths, massive explosions, aliens, monsters, or beasts of any kind; Kate Reid has an epileptic seizure, but that’s about it. The most horrifying thing in The Andromeda Strain is the animal experiment: in real time, we watch a rat and a rhesus monkey suffocate. The American Humane Society gets a prominent credit in the opening titles, but how the fuck can you get a monkey to do that in a “humane” way?
In any case, the movie gets really boring, despite a promising paranoid start, presaging The Parallax View by three years. A group of scientists—again, minor actors playing anonymous public servants—are sent into Piedmont, New Mexico after everyone in the town has dropped dead. Blood clots to powder, and after some nice helicopter sequences, the movie grinds to a halt once it reaches the Space Odyssey base, where these scientists spend most of their time taking care of an old man and a shrieking baby, and looking at screens and saying, “Computer—enhance!!” Crisis is averted in the end by less than 20 seconds, a Hollywood convention in a “realistic” movie filled with them; although it takes great pains never to excite the audience, this is a movie populated by mannequins and cheese, all slowly turning to powder.
In March 2021, Noah Berlatsky wrote about The Andromeda Strain for Splice Today: “Where The Andromeda Strain is most off-base, though, is in its Hollywood ending. Despite all the screw-ups, the scientists prevent disaster at the last minute, and are able to provide the military with a quick, easy way to neutralize the virus. The body count from the infection is in tens, not, as in our current fiasco, hundreds of thousands in the US and millions globally.
The movie does end with an ominous warning about next time. But watching it, it’s clear the filmmakers never anticipated just how unprepared we could be, or how blasé.”
Doesn’t Berlatsky know that scientists and government officials do prevent disaster at the last minute? Why would we ever hear about that? Even just going off of commercial films, the government, or whoever’s in charge, always covers things up, no matter how they turn out. No one in the world of The Andromeda Strain is ever going to know about what happened in Piedmont. The coronavirus pandemic obviously wasn’t averted; the idea that it was planned and intentional is even more reassuring if you’re worried about accidents—and as far as the filmmakers or the film never anticipating “how unprepared we could be, or how blasé,” give me a break. Everybody in Washington that these characters talk to is dismissive, arrogant, brash, and impatient—another Hollywood cutout. The biggest fault of The Andromeda Strain isn’t its “realism” or its optimism, but its “sober” take on a formulaic screenplay, a draining experience far from entertainment. No wonder no one listened!
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith