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Film Critique: The Andromeda Strain, 1971 Disasters and the Media, EM-511 Summer 2012 Eugene I. Rothman Jacksonville State University 05 July 2012

Author Note Eugene I. Rothman, Institute of Emergency Preparedness, Jacksonville State University. EM-511, Disasters and the Media, Summer 2012 Correspondence concerning this paper should be addressed to Eugene Rothman, Email:

FILM CRITIQUE: THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971) Most of The Andromeda Strain occurs beyond the sight of the public. The dramatic opening scenes are inside Caper One, a military vehicle, and the mission control center of a secret military project, Project Scoop. Except for the early notifications of the Wildfire team,

which occurred at two places of work and two private residences, neither the characters nor we the audience have any interaction with the public. Because of this, there is little opportunity to contribute to disaster myths such as panic, looting, or increased crime rates. Quite the contrary, as the initial emergency unfolds in Mission Control for Project Scoop, although we do see fear and anxiety on the faces of those monitoring the situation, there is no panic. We see only professional training, standard operating procedures, and stoic decision-making. As the plot develops, what we do see with increasing frequency is the stress, anxiety, and exhaustion of the characters. Each of the Wildfire team starts out in an anxious state, all four having been interrupted and taken from their normal environs, in one instance, almost to the point of force. Dr. Ruth Leavitt, played by Kate Reid, is perhaps the most anxious, and her characters business of appearing weak and dizzy foreshadows her underlying medical problems, which will have serious implications later in the film. Although each of the four Wildfire team members has been told about the project, only Dr. Jeremy Stone, played by Arthur Hill, and Dr. Charles Dutton, played by David Wayne, has a working knowledge of the Wildfire facility and its complex procedures of protective isolation and security. The fact that the whole team is not equally familiar with the plan leads to conflict later on. The very existence of the Wildfire facility is evidence of its foundation as a comprehensive emergency management program. In the vignettes of the notifications of the Wildfire team the comprehensive nature of the installation itself and the intricacy of its security precautions become apparent, as does the fact that the planning and implementation of this secret

FILM CRITIQUE: THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971) project has been going on for quite some time. This is confirmed at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Space Sciences1, when Senator Phillips, played by Eric Christmas, asks General

Sparks, played by Peter Hobbs, about a famous letter that Dr. Stone sent the president some two years ago (Wise, 1971, time 00:18:07). This letter not only speaks to preparedness but also to mitigation and response. In the next scene we are there, two years earlier, as Dr. Stone reads this letter to his colleagues at Berkeley. Stones letter presents an assessment of the potential hazards presented by space exploration and addresses three of the four phases of emergency management.

In a true biological crisis, which our exploration of space could bring about, the present Lunar Receiving Laboratory might prove inadequate. I therefore urge the establishment of a facility to deal specifically with an extraterrestrial form of life. The purpose of this facility would be to limit the dissemination of such an unknown organism from outer space and to provide laboratories for its analysis. I recommend that this facility be located in an uninhabited region of the United States, that it utilize all known isolation techniques, and that it be equipped with a nuclear device for self-destruction in the event of an emergency. (Wise, 1971, time 00:18:30).

The overall premise of the film, the possibility that extraterrestrial life might be deleterious to life on this planet, is scientifically valid and astonishingly topical. This past June, a dock that was torn away from the Japan coast during the 2011 tsunami washed ashore on a beach in Newport, Oregon. [ T]here were some very, very bad characters that we really are afraid of having here [] this really is a horrible thing, said John Chapman of Oregon State

held on 04/14/1971, after the conclusion of the Wildfire incident

FILM CRITIQUE: THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971) Universitys Hatfield Marine Science Center. [We] saw it covered with Japanese organisms, it was the first minute that anybody has really worried about introduced organisms with marine

debris. It was like landing on the moon (Murphy, 2012). Alien in this case terrestrial but nonindigenous life is already a recognized threat to ecosystems here in the United States and around the globe. The science surrounding the resolution of the Wildfire incident is accurate and topical as well. 2009 saw the arrival of a strain of influenza that was remarkably similar to the so-called Spanish flu that caused the pandemic flu of 1918. It is believed that the 2009 H1N1 may have been caused by genetic reassortment or drift of the 1918 influenza virus (CDC/DHHS, 2009). The influenza virus is singularly susceptible to genetic mutation, which may explain the extensive variety and range of virulence seen in historic and modern day influenza outbreaks. In The Andromeda Strain, over time the causative agent became harmless to humans, perhaps, as Dr. Stone speculates, through successive mutations (Wise, 1971, time 02:01:24). The susceptibility of the causative agent in The Andromeda Strain to derangements in the acid/base balance within the two survivors is just as plausible. In the same way that a narrow acid/base balance will keep a swimming pool clean, clear, and free from algae and bacteria, the human body has evolved to maintain an acid/base balance within a narrow range of 7.35 to 7.45. Deviations toward either side of this range can lead to a number of diseases and conditions that are deleterious to a persons health. Changes in diet, ingestion of toxins, and changes in the pattern or rate of respiration can push the acid/base value to one extreme or another, throwing vital body chemistries out of balance. While the five main characters of the Wildfire Team each play their part in the overall drama, Dr. Mark Hall could in many ways be considered the main character. Played by James Olson, Dr. Hall is a sarcastic and often flippant foil to the earnest and serious Dr. Stone,

FILM CRITIQUE: THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971) originator and leader of the Wildfire project. Dr. Hall plays a pivotal role as the only medical doctor on the team and as the Odd Man. The Robertson Odd Man Hypothesis states that an unmarried male [would be the person best suited to] carry out command decisions involving thermonuclear destruct contexts (Wise, 1971, time 00:41:12; Michael Crichton, 1969, p. 101). At the same time that The Andromeda Strain mutates to a form that is no longer deadly to

humans, it begins to attack and degrade the safety seals of the Wildfire facility. This triggers the nuclear self-destruct device and Dr. Hall is the only one who is both capable of and has the opportunity to disarm the system, saving all their lives. This also prevents The Andromeda Strain from being exposed to high doses of radiation that might lead to further mutation. The framework of The Andromeda Strain is build upon the decisions of governmental officials and military leaders. Throughout the film we see segments of congressional hearings attempting to post mortem the events leading up to and during the Wildfire incident. Certainly, the irascibility and sarcasm of Senator Phillips and the praise and hyperbole of Senator McKenzie, played by David McLean, ring true and are indeed tame compared to the rhetoric of todays politicians. While I have always found this film enjoyable and the novel no less so I do not believe that this film would be a solid learning tool for emergency management. Beyond the foresight of the Wildfire facility itself, much of the action is reactionary and many of the plans are poorly thought out. The concept that foreign or alien life forms could prove inimical to terrestrial life is both good and bad. While on the one hand instilling a healthy wariness about the introduction of such organisms into an ecosystem is perhaps a good thing, the dangers of xenophobia are already all too apparent in our society today.

FILM CRITIQUE: THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971) References: CDC/DHHS. (2009, November 25). CDC H1N1 Flu | Origin of 2009 H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu). Retrieved July 3, 2012, from Michael Crichton. (1969). The Andromeda Strain. New York, N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Murphy, K. (2012, June 14). Japanese tsunami debris: Invasive species found on dock in Oregon. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from,0,2872217.story Wise, R. (Director). (1971). The Andromeda Strain [Motion picture]. Los Angeles, CA. Universal Studios.