What happens if there’s no nick-of-time rescue?
What happens if there’s no happy ending?
Two questions that keep coming to mind as the “remarkable” year 2020 staggers on. They also occurred to me when I re-watched the 1971 film The Andromeda Strain recently.
To say that I loved this movie when I first saw it way back when I was 14, would be a massive understatement. It burned a permanent imprint on my brain about what I think works best in science fiction cinema. Yes, it has a highly relevant and challenging premise. Yes, it had incredible design and special effects. Yes, the story blasted along at about 100,000 miles an hour; and yes, all it’s high-end creative elements were composed in way that can only be called masterful. When director Robert Wise was on, he was really on.1
Was The Andromeda Strain particularly “far out” (as we used to say back then)? No. What scared my GWG2 flared jeans off, was that the action took place in the absolutely right now. The high-speed dateline crawl at the bottom of the screen said that the story took place just two months before I was watching the movie in the Paramount Theater in Saskatoon.
I have to admit that my personal experience also added to the film’s commanding believe-ability score. Microbes and viruses are some of the main menaces and since my dad was a microbiologist with the National Research Council, I had some familiarity with these concepts – enough to know that this wasn’t some weird and outlandish stuff somebody just made up. There could indeed be micro-organisms from outer space, and yes they could cause all kinds of problems if they infected Earth’s ecosystem. My dad later mentioned (because he saw the movie, and read the book) that the elaborate containment facility where they study the Andromeda bug reminded him a lot of his tour of the bio-labs at Fort Detrick in Maryland. Okay, so places like that already existed? That fact really “freaked me out” (as we also used to say back then).
Returning to the film today, I noticed that a few things have dated – mostly in the areas of communications technology and computer graphics. Even so, there’s lots in there that’s just as relevant to 2020 as 1971:
Our continued semi-competence in the use of technology. We’re really smart with our tools. Until we aren’t. The interpersonal dynamics between scientists, politicians, technicians and other professionals. There’s still a fair bit of prejudice and condescension going around. There are also flashes of inspiration, courage and (gasp!) cooperation. The always troubling relationship between science and the military and how, as one of the scientist characters says: “One of these days, Establishment gonna fall down, go boom!”
You can also look at The Andromeda Strain as The War of the Worlds in reverse. Instead of our native micro-organisms killing off the invading Martians, alien germs are exterminating us. And the similarities to the movie’s premise and Planet Earth Year 2020 are troubling enough to make you reach for your Anti-Triggering Allergy Pills. Some hellishly contagious virus is loose among us and it’s doing horrific damage. For real.
Getting back to the questions I asked at the beginning of this fun-filled exposition:
What happens if there’s no nick-of-time rescue? The Andromeda Strain is a Hollywood movie. So we do get one of those. Well, kind of. What happens if there’s no happy ending? For the same reason, there’s one of these, too. Well, sort of. But when you think about it, maybe not.
Watching The Andromeda Strain today forces you to think about the unthinkable (or at least think about think about things you’d rather not think about):
What if there’s ultimately no quick and easy fix to the COVID crisis? What if it takes years, or decades, to develop the corona-virus vaccine? What if we’re never able to create one? What are we willing to do to protect ourselves and each other? What are we willing to sacrifice?
What if COVID-19 is just the latest of many potential pandemics in the coming years? It’s not the first corona-virus and it won’t be the last. Will we be any better prepared next time?
To quote the last line in The Andromeda Strain: “What do we do?”
1Hey, the circumstances surrounding Star Trek: The Motion Picture were exceptional and not particularly kind. So we’re not going to go into them here. 2 GWG = Great Western Garment Company, These were Canadian denims that you got when you couldn't afford Lees or Levis.