• The Isolation Files #2 - Science, fact and fiction

    The speed of our eventual recovery depends entirely on our collective ability to get on top of the virus now and that means we have to take the next steps on scientific advice

    – Boris Johnson, 19 March 2020, press conference

    There’s a ‘fire’, sir.

    – Captain Morton, 5 February 1971, The Andromeda Strain (1971)

    Whether anyone could or should have been more prepared for a pandemic originating amidst Earth’s six billion people is a moot point for now; instead, scientists are working hard on a vaccine and improved treatments. But fifty years ago, young doctor-turned-author Michael Crichton imagined elaborate plans to protect against the possibility of a lethal micro-organism arriving from space, in his novel The Andromeda Strain. It was an immediate success and the film version two years later, directed by Robert Wise, is unarguably the most grounded, intelligent and respectful portrayal of a similar scientific struggle.

    Crichton’s story centres on four scientists battling to detect, characterise and suppress an unknown contagion that kills all but two residents of a small, isolated town after a space probe’s re-entry vehicle makes landfall. The scientists are summoned from around the US by military policemen, armed guards and tapped telephone lines and brought to a secure, state of the art biocontainment facility buried beneath the Nevada desert on land owned by the Atomic Energy Commission. Codenamed Wildfire, the complex is as classified as the intercontinental ballistic missile silos scattered across the American Mid-West, has its own nuclear device for emergency sanitisation and is further protected by a large, fenced-in agricultural research station sitting above it. The scientists – a surgeon, a bacteriologist, a pathologist and a microbiologist – must work together using the latest technology but also logic, methodology and experience to solve the mystery, not knowing what form of life they are battling and how it might mutate.

    It can be seen already that the film weaves a rich mix of the real and the fictional. Indeed, both book and film are presented as documenting actuality – Crichton was inspired by his editor to consider what the novel “would look like, if the story were true. Where would I have gotten the information? How much would I know? And in what style would I write it, if it were true?” A specific influence was Len Deighton’s The IPCRESS File of 1962, not least for its inclusion of footnotes both factual and fictitious. For his book, then, Crichton drew on his own medical training and available technology like spy satellite film recovery capsules, although also included a lengthy bibliography of sources that is convincing but entirely false. Wise continued this approach by having authentic-looking documents created for the montage that underlays the opening titles. These comprise the security clearance for one of the team; a secure storage area allocation card for a nurse who supports one of the main characters; a foreign national visitor request for a Hungarian scientist who is later seen advocating the concept of bacteriological life on meteorites (the request is stamped DISAPPROVED); the summary court martial record of a Vandenberg Air Force Base sergeant who also appears in the film; and a sales receipt for barley seed delivered to the Wildfire cover site.

    Under production designer Boris Neven the hardware used adopted the same principle. Multiple organisations and contractors assisted the production, as they did on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey two years earlier. Telechirs or remote manipulators from the nuclear industry, a magnascanner or medical imager employing radiological material, industrial robots and a computer controlled by light pen were all provided. These and other devices, such as closed-circuit television, fingerprint scanners – which had barely been invented – and lasers, were real but cutting edge systems whose presence increased the credibility of elements that were entirely hypothetical, such as the Wildfire laboratory itself. Composed of five ring-shaped floors, each colour-coded, it was equipped with airlocks, tracking systems and a nutrient tablet-dispensing canteen.

    The film thus displays the cinematic techno-fetishism of its era yet is clearly positioned between the Playboy-style architectural fantasies of Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise (1966) and Ken Adam’s sets for Bond adventure Diamonds are Forever (1969) and the more subdued technology of The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975). Visually Wise adopted deep-focus composition and the split-screen technique briefly popular in the wake of Christopher Chapman’s multi-image documentary short A Place to Stand, made for Expo 67. Aurally the film features a range of mechanical noises, effects and announcements and an early electronic score by jazz musician and composer Gil Mellé.

    Just as Wildfire is hidden by a quotidian disguise, the principal characters gain significant credibility from the deliberate casting of lesser-known actors. Arthur Hill is particularly impressive as solid project leader Jeremy Stone, shouldering most of the dialogue – which itself is heavy with jargon and exposition – effortlessly and naturally. Kate Reid’s sardonic, entirely unglamorous Ruth Leavitt is a useful contrast, leaving David Wayne as the mature and laid-back Charles Dutton and James Olsen as eventual action man Mark Hall to complete the quartet.

    Importantly, they are depicted as true professionals, neither heroic nor histrionic but determined and rational. Science as a discipline is shown to be superior to the other arms of crisis management on display – politicians and the military. In this respect The Andromeda Strain is influenced by Peter Yates’s Bullitt (1968), one of the first dramas to accurately depict medical and police procedures, and anticipates the thematically comparable Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978) and Arrival (2016).

    One final point is worthy of note. The story is told in flashback, from the point of view of Stone testifying before a Senate committee. Despite the near-cataclysm that forms the climax if the film, this subliminally comforting sleight of hand shows that disasters both atomic and biological were avoided. There is hope.

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Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

L

Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

Ivy Press, 2018

ISBN 9781782405443

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