Andromeda Strain X 2

Epidemic Cinema

The Andromeda Strain

WORKING WITH DISEASE AND DISASTER

INTRO: Since epidemics and pandemics will assuredly always be with us, I post this entry. Beware of SPOILERS throughout!

The first Andromeda Strain (1971) was a leading indicator of epidemic cinema—an alien contagion, its origins in space obscure, simultaneously unnatural in composition but familiarly molecular, a stealth epidemic seemingly without a cure. As an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel of biological speculative fiction, the film shared with other cultural manifestations of the 1960s an understandably rebellious suspicion of the American government’s presentation of facts (“all governments lie’—I.F. Stone). It turns out that the alien invader was not self-propelled but snatched, a “benefit” of Operation Scoop, a secret governmental initiative to gain the upper hand in chemical-biological warfare. Since this situation would be unacceptable to the scientific community, the government’s crack team of scientists, the Foxfire team, is at first kept in the dark about the origins of the contagion as the disaster looms.

In both films, the team uses its training, wits, and computer power to solve what in epidemic cinema is the search for the origins of the disease—isolating “patient zero.” Both films as well as novel begin with two survivors, a crying baby and a raving drunk.

The second film, produced by Bladerunner’s director, Ridley Scott, and his brother Tony, are after bigger political targets, namely military secrecy, apparent government indifference in itself masking massive governmental collusion, and the threat of terrorism. All of these are characteristic of the cinema of megalopolis, which adds the time-travel looping paradox of some of the more apocalyptical examples of the type. But the second Andromeda updates the mobius strip metaphor with the more current worm hole theory in which distant parts of the universe can be “reached” through this short cut.

The breakthrough in decoding the Andromeda strain comes in a one-two punch. The scientists realize that Andromeda’s molecules are encased in a buckeyball material (theoretically possible but not yet realized in our era) that contains a coded message from our future selves asking us to utilize a specific agent–bacillus infernus–to destroy this plague. This bacterium exists only in the mouth of deep-sea vents (an uncanny mirror image of a worm hole) and which we finally have access to because of a controversial mining initiative, a seemingly unrelated subplot of the second film.

But the Paradox of Identical Outcomes prevails, because the really bad guys (led by the chair of the National Security Council and his military henchmen) have preserved a fragment of Andromeda before our heroes can zap it with the right bacillus and have sent it into space, presumably to drift into our future and contaminate our descendants who send it back to us with a vengeance with an encoded message in the buckeyball casing (the mining of deep sea vents having in the end destroyed the future’s supply of the bacillus). (Most reviewers never realize this amazing plot twist, apparently having missed the discussion of the satellite on the operating table as not really looking like a scooping device but more like a secure containment satellite.)

Whew! Lots of dastardly double-crosses ensue in this sprightly thriller, not the least of which is one sequence lifted from Hitchcock’s The Birds: it outdoes Hitch in violence perhaps but not subtlety of motive.

P.S. Michael Crichton’s Prey (New York: Harper Collins, 2002) is a nanotechnological update of the author’s Andromeda Strain, in which particles, nurtured by molecular engineering in E. coli bacteria, have apparently had access to the scripts for the Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, because their possession of human beings to create a new race of pod people was greeted with scorn by many reviewers; Freeman Dyson (NY Review of Books, 13 Feb. 2003) was one of the rare reviewers who assumed that Crichton’s “basic message” was “true”: “biotechnology in the 21st century is as dangerous as nuclear technology in the 2oth”

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