Generally, when I think of director Robert Wise, West Side Story and The Sound of Music immediately spring to mind (as I’m sure they do for most movie buffs). I really can’t explain why this is, because a) I’m not a fan of musicals and b) I’ve seen enough of Wise’s movies to know that he tackled a whole lot of different genres and made a whole bunch of great films. It most probably has a little to do with both of those previously-mentioned films winning the Best Picture Oscar. Being Psychotronically-inclined, however, I should know better. Eight of Wise’s films are listed in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, and several of those are bona fide classics.
Wise made three science fiction films during his long career: The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The quality that unites all three films is that they were made for adults, unlike the majority of science fiction movies. The distinction that sets The Andromeda Strain apart from the other two, and apart from the vast majority of science fiction films, is that it’s considered a “hard” science fiction film. Hard science fiction is a subgenre that emphasizes the “science” part of science fiction.
Normally, I’m not a big fan of science fiction and fantasy films. Usually, the magnitude of the suspension of disbelief that I have to muster is just too great, and I end up finding the whole affair contemptuous. (For proof, just check out my write-up of Altered States.) Now, if you throw a monster in there, well, it’s a different story…but ordinarily, science fiction is not my go-to genre. Because of this bias, I really expected to dislike The Andromeda Strain the first time I saw it years ago. However, the film’s sheer plausibility plus its relentless forward momentum kept it from feeling less like a science fiction film and more like a horrifying Discovery Channel documentary. My second viewing of the film for this post only strengthened my feelings about it.
For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, The Andromeda Strain is about an organism that’s brought to the American Southwest by a returning satellite. The satellite crashes near the small town of Piedmont, New Mexico, and the microbes that it carries kill everyone in town…except for an old man and a baby. A team of scientists is quickly assembled and charged with figuring out how to contain and/or destroy the code-named Andromeda Strain before it kills more people. It’s based on a novel by Michael Crichton which, while not his first novel, was the first of his novels to be published under his own name and the first of his novels to be a best-seller.
I’d be somewhat remiss if I didn’t mention the soundtrack album that was released concurrently with the film. In one of those “it seemed like a good idea at the time” circumstances, the soundtrack LP was designed to mimic the shape of the Andromeda Strain microbe in the film. The vinyl itself was hexagonal, and it was housed in a jacket that unfolded from the front to expose the album. It’s a lot easier to show you what it looks like than to describe it, so here it is:
Apparently, the shape of the LP, while not affecting its playback (as the grooved part of the album still had circular grooves), caused a lot of problems with automatic record changers. Everything probably would have been fine if the grooved portion of the album had been the normal twelve inches in diameter; however, to fit the hexagonal shape into a standard-sized album cover (which would fit in standard-sized display bins in stores), the grooved part of the LP was only 10 inches in diameter. Automatic record changers were designed to gently set the tone arm down at a point six inches from the spindle of the turntable, so when this album was played, the tone arm would then be beat mercilessly by the decidedly UNcircular sides of the vinyl.
As Michael Weldon puts it in the Psychotronic Encyclopedia, the unique design of the LP “caused untold destruction to the nation’s automatic turntables, whose cartridges were smashed by the record’s corners.” Actually, though, although some damage WAS reported, it was far less than “untold,” as the soundtrack didn’t sell well at all. After the reports of damage started coming in, Kapp Records recalled the soundtrack and repressed it onto good, old-fashioned circular vinyl. It still didn’t sell, however. Because the soundtrack didn’t move a whole lot of copies, it’s rather rare today; in fact, a copy of the hexagonal edition sold for $125 on eBay only a few days before my posting of this write-up.
Check out The Andromeda Strain when you get a chance. It’s science fiction for those who don’t usually like science fiction. And if you decide, after watching it, that you want a copy of the soundtrack…I suggest that you buy the CD.
Here’s the trailer, courtesy of YouTube and Turner Classic Movies, to whet your appetite:
Up next: Murder a la Warhol!