When a U.S. satellite crashes near Piedmont, New Mexico, most of the town dies from a mysterious ailment. The military recovery team believes the cause is an alien organism. In hazmat suits, Doctor Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) and Surgeon Mark Hall (James Olson) are dropped in by helicopter. They find that the town doctor had opened the satellite in his office and that all of his blood is crystallized into powder. The same has happened to everyone in town, except that two people went insane and committed suicide. The team retrieves the satellite and finds two survivors: a 69-year-old alcoholic named Peter Jackson (George Mitchell) and a bawling six-month old child.
Also on the team are Doctor Charles Dutton (David Wayne) and Doctor Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid) who are summoned to the top-secret underground facility called Wildfire, in Nevada. After going through five levels of decontamination, they get to work. There is an automatic nuclear self-destruct protocol to incinerate everything if needed. The only one entrusted with the key to shut it off is Doctor Hall, as the only unmarried male. Cameras reveal the microscopic alien organism on the satellite. It is green, it throbs, and they call it the Andromeda Strain. It kills animal life almost instantly with clots in the brain. It has no earth-like DNA. They want to know why the old man and the baby survived.
A jet crashes near Piedmont when the pilot radios that his plastic oxygen mask is dissolving. The researchers argue over the lab being used for biological warfare research. Leavitt has epilepsy, which might impair her functioning. The alcoholic survived because his blood was extremely acidic from drinking Sterno, and the baby’s blood was extremely alkaline from crying. It seems the strain can only survive in a narrow range of blood pH. But the organism mutates into a non-lethal form that dissolves synthetic plastics, so it escapes the seals in the containment room. A five-minute countdown to nuclear destruction begins.
Hall resuscitates Leavitt from an epileptic seizure triggered by the flashing red lights. They realize that the strain would not only survive a nuclear blast, it would thrive, creating a super-colony that might destroy all life on Earth. Hall desperately tries to reach a station where he can use his key to disable the bomb. Lasers, designed to kill escaped lab animals, attack him, but he manages to save the day. He awakens in a hospital bed to find that clouds are being seeded to create alkaline seawater to render the strain harmless. In the future, they might not be so lucky.
The film was produced and directed by Robert Wise, based on Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel adapted by Nelson Gidding, and it follows the book quite closely, except to change one of the male characters to female. The special effects were designed by Douglas Trumbull. Alien menaces do not have to be eight-feet-tall with tentacles. Here, the tiniest forms of life that saved Earth from the Martians in War of the Worlds are the threat. With the powerful and respectable minds involved in creating the film, the only caveats from critics were regarding the slow, detailed story which some found boring. I thought the film extremely tense and engaging. Not too surprisingly, it received rave reviews from the Infectious Diseases Society of America. It was nominated for two Oscars and a Hugo.
Michael Crichton was given a tour of Universal Studios by Steven Spielberg, who later did such a great job with his Jurassic Park. The Wildfire Lab sets, which cost 300,000 dollars, were called the most elaborately detailed interiors ever built. At first, screenwriter Nelson Gidding resisted having a female crew member, thinking of Raquel Welch, but he spoke with scientists who put him straight. Michael Crichton wrote the first draft of the novel as a medical student. This is the only film of his books in which he has a cameo, as “bearded surgeon.” In the scene of the monkey’s death, it is only rendered unconscious and immediately revived. The film pretends to be based on true events and goes so far as to thank fictitious government departments for their help. Later, a TV series was produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, with Benjamin Bratt in the main role.