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»First biological crisis in the space age« (Paula Kelly and Arthur Hill)

As a editing room slave of the film production company RKO, Robert Wise was extremely lucky in his mid-20s. He was ordered to monitor the cut of the debut of an enfant terrible: “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941). The job earned Wise an Oscar nomination, and even if Citizen Kane only won the Oscar for best screenplay, Wise’s place in film history was already secured. By coincidence, he had worked decisively on something that was to become the film of the films.

A little later, Wise himself became a director who delivered genre-defining films over decades: the boxer film “Somebody up There Likes Me” based on the autobiography of the same name by Rocky Graziano (1956, “Hell is in me”, also “A handful of dirt” ), the film adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” (1961) or the darkly sexualized horror film “The Haunting” (1963, “Until the Blood Freezes”).

His explicitly pacifist science fiction film “The Day Earth Stagnated” from 1951 already had a rather idiosyncratic style: “The Day the Earth Stood Still” clearly showed Robert Wise’s preference for filmmaking with a documentary touch, that was at the forefront of social problems ”(Richard C. Keenan,“ The Films of Robert Wise, ”Scarecrow Press, 2007).

Robert Wise also reopened the 1970s with a science fiction film, but, unlike in the 1950s, focused less on the humanistic message than on the image of technology, on the files of “Science”: “Man might as well marvel at the artistic vision of a computer program ”(John Kenneth Muir,“ Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s ”, 2013).

A large part of the film shows micro and xenobiologists as well as medical staff at work in the laboratory. Scientists are not always in a position to master the situation, but they can usually rely on their machines. Techno-optimism: The real heroes of this film are mainframes, robots and electron microscopes (astronauts and politicians also play a role, mostly not boastful). In short, this film was very far ahead in 1971.

We are talking about “The Andromeda Strain”, German title: “Andromeda – Deadly Dust from Space”, although in the film the only relevant dust is literally desert dust in New Mexico, a film adaptation of a bestseller by Michael Crichton in pseudo-book style from 1969. The material was taken up again in 2008 in a rather miserable TV mini-series.

“The Andromeda Strain” is once again extremely topical in these times dominated by epidemics and viruses. After all, he deals with “the first biological crisis of the space age”, Muir, op. Cit. It begins with a pseudo-documentary tablet: “This film concerns the four-day history of a major American scientific crisis”. We thank the Air Force and the laboratory, more precisely the “Wildfire Laboratory in Flatrock, Nevada”.

This is followed by the opening credits, which imitate the graphic surface of a computer screen, on which allegedly authentic secret documents, arranged in monochrome geometric forms, dance an uncanny ballet of clandestine research.

Then a space capsule falls on a Kaff in New Mexico (population 68). The residents mysteriously all died overnight. Your blood is crystallized into red sand. There are two strange survivors. An apocalyptic old drunkard with an open stomach ulcer who prefers to poke lighter fluid and a crying newborn. Their apparent immunity will later be the answer to the riddle (“we have to do it like any other scientific problem”).

One of the film’s best sequences is one in which military personnel in space suits examine what appears to be contaminated desert coffee as if it were an alien planet, also driving away the lamb vultures from the corpses and finding the deceased in the bedroom like the archaeologists found the petrified in Pompeii. As a precaution, epidemic alarm is given.

The responsible senior scientist is recalled. He still holds the teacup in his hand, with which he will later control robotic arms. His family asks: “Another laboratory accident?” – “No, it’s something different this time.”

It is important to isolate a microorganism from space, to analyze it and to render it harmless in the end. The conspiracy paranoia that has been deeply rooted in the genre (and in almost every epidemiological discourse) has not failed to materialize. The organism is perhaps the result of a search for the perfect biological weapon. Politicians and the military already want to drop an atomic bomb over New Mexico, but can only be prevented by scientific reason.

The image of the discovery and isolation of the organism is of lasting beauty: an emerald green stain on a pencil-sized stone from space. The patch enlarges an area full of green bubbles, which occasionally pulsate into red-brown hexagons. The organism later has the shape of a crystal. Green like the typeface on the computer screens of the early 1970s.

A chain-smoking scientist, who has been particularly hard hit by the smoking ban in quarantine, is the first to discover the terrifyingly unstoppable: “Good God, it’s growing!” It grows and grows. Like reason and threat.

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