Friday, February 8, 2013

The Dead of Andromeda

The most chilling thing Robert Wise ever filmed, and the most subversive, was the village of dead people in The Andromeda Strain.  Nothing else in the movie can match it and it's a very good movie so that's saying something.  Although Wise had done eerie (The Curse of the Cat People), horrifying (The Body Snatcher), and spooky (The Haunting), he had never done anything as downright creepy as the scene in The Andromeda Strain when two scientists (Arthur Hill and James Olson) show up to investigate a town of dead people.

Wise makes hard choices early on, such as not turning away from children laying dead as well as adults.  Whether it was in the script or not, it was Wise's decision to go with it and go with it he did.  The opening shot, of an older man lying on his back, doesn't shock us because of the man's age and angle of the shot.  But then, without warning, we go to the next shot, two boys who dropped dead in the middle of a basketball game. And it goes on.  And on.  And on.  Another boy.  A dog.  An old woman.  A man in a barber chair and, slyly, the barber's feet lying on the floor next to him.  Blink and you'll miss it.  A younger woman with a peace sign around her neck lays dead, breasts bare.  An older woman in the next shot prominently wears a cross.  Then we see the suicides.  And an entire family, dead at a gas station while the mechanic slumps over the engine.

And the music?  Nowhere to be found.  The whole scene is shot in silence with nothing but the sound of wind behind it.

Coming from the man who gave us The Sound of Music, the scene is positively devious.  Wise seems to revel in showing one shot after another, perfectly staged and imagined.  The gas station scene alone, with a boy who just happened to pull up on his bike, and then die right there, is a beautiful master shot of a scene with close-ups that never follows.

The Andromeda Strain was one of the best science fictions of the seventies and it's suspenseful and thrilling throughout but its visual highpoint comes early when Wise decided to spend some time lingering over the dead.

See complete stills from the scene at Unexplained Cinema, here and here