Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Method to the Madness

For something that provides an entire genre with plots, it seems odd that the scientific method features in so few actual science fiction movies. I mean, it's the backbone of the whodunnit: form a hypothesis, gather and examine data based on that hypothesis, state a conclusion. Detectives from Nick and Nora Charles to the cops of the 87th Precinct have all used this method in movies and books without number. Science fiction, on the other hand, usually has no use for actual science, which is a pity. You would think that it would be the scientific method's natural habitat, but you would be wrong. I can think of one film that gets it right: Robert Wise's 1971 thriller, The Andromeda Strain, which not only gets the process right, it gets the scientists more or less right, too.

Of course, the obstacle in depicting actual science in movies designed for entertainment is that science is a grind. Experimental methods often consist of doing the same thing over and over again, while making only minute changes to the conditions of the experiment. Filmmakers don't have the patience for this in a two hour movie, and I would bet that an audience would find it impossible to sit through, as well. And yet, the movies have successfully abstracted this tedium elsewhere: I imagine that actual police investigation is a lot like science, in that it's probably a grind of endless fact gathering and paperwork. That hasn't stopped the movies from making movies about cops and detectives. So why not science? That's an idea that The Andromeda Strain tackles head-on. It's plot consists of experiments, failures, re-framing experiments, etc., until the characters have gathered enough information to make informed decisions about the threat the movie presents. The Andromeda Strain is interesting, too, because most of the scientific equipment on display is functional scientific equipment. The design of the film is such that the equipment looks all of a piece, but the film gives a title credit at the beginning of the movie to various scientific equipment houses and research laboratories, of which the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the most prominent. The filmmakers go out of the way to make sure that even if the science is fake, the procedures of science are authentic. Science is to The Andromeda Strain as cetology is to Moby Dick. It grounds the movie in some kind of concrete reality, because at its core, the actual threat in The Andromeda Strain is a highbrow version of The Blob. (I don't mean that as a criticism, by the way, merely an observation).

This could all be deadly dull, but Wise and his collaborators manage to make all of it set hooks into the audience. Indeed, The Andromeda Strain is a gripping thriller, and not just because it has the threat of impending apocalypse hanging over it (though that helps). Watching the process is fascinating (to me anyway). It's like that scene in Goodfellas where Scorsese takes time out to show the process of cooking spaghetti sauce. The details of how things work are innately interesting. They tickle something deep inside my hindbrain. I don't think I'm alone in this. Of course, Wise hedges his bets by setting all of this against the backdrop of a Bond villain's lair. That's what Project Wildfire is, by the way: it's Blofeld's hollow volcano redux. And Wise doubles down on this by opening the film with a particularly effective horror show as James Olson and Arthur Hill tour the doomed town of Piedmont, NM. Wise made two other science fiction films, but this film doesn't resemble either of them. It more closely resembles The Haunting among the director's signature works: it strands four disparate investigators in a microcosm and watches them interact.

The tour of Piedmont is a sequence that did a number on me when I was a kid. The imagery here is terrifying, from the quiet ambiance of death, to the ghastly suicides (with the hint of doomsday hanging over it), to the climactic scene where James Olson's Dr. Hall cuts the wrist of one of the victims only to find red dust in his veins. This is a baroque vision of the end times, and the filmmakers have lovingly mounted it all with gorgeous deep-focus photography and elaborate split screens. It makes a huge impression. Is this the film that introduces the clean-suited soldier as an object of menace? I think that it is. It predates Romero's The Crazies by two years and I imagine that the influence flows downhill. The effect of the film's opening act is to cast a pall of doom on everything that follows.

The characters this movie gives us are anti-Hollywood. There is no square-jawed hero here. There is no romantic interest. The four principles are played by familiar, but not too familiar character actors, and they're of an appropriate age to have won the Nobel Prize or become the pre-eminent microbiologist or whatever accolades the movie has seen fit to give. This, in spite of the fact that all four of them are types. Dr. Stone (Arthur Hill) is the sellout, a scientist who has gone to work for the government in areas that promise mass destruction. Wildfire is his baby, and it's completely obvious that it's a germ warfare facility--as the rest of the cast deduces soon enough. David Wayne is Dr. Dutton, the elder scientist, world weary and resigned to the fact that if he can't do good, he can at least mitigate the evil. James Olson is more or less the protagonist as Dr. Hill, an MD who casts a jaundiced eye on the whole enterprise. He's sixties idealism still warm and breathing. Kate Reid's Dr. Leavitt, on the other hand, is the iconoclast as disappointed survivor. Dr. Leavitt is the most interesting character here, given that she's middle-aged, frumpy, no-nonsense, and epileptic. I could take issue with the sexism implicit in having her be the weak link in the chain, but there's also a certain amount of critique of sexism and ableism in the way she comports herself. She's had to be the best and smartest person in the room by virtue of her gender. Her first scene is telling: she's unwilling to go to Wildfire when she's in the middle of an experiment--one on which she's worked her ass off. But when her fitness to work at Wildfire is subtly questioned ("Are you ill?"), she agrees, if only to wipe the condescension off the soldier's face. In a film in which character development is secondary to the mechanism of its plot, it's telling. Dr. Leavitt is interesting for another reason, too: the character in the novel is male, and they haven't changed her character in any other particular. But in making her female for the movie, they've opened up all kinds of interesting sub-narratives. This is all on Wise and his scenarist, Nelson Gidding, and it's a trope that gained traction seven years later in Alien, a film in which Ripley was famously written as a man but cast as a woman. One wishes that Hollywood would rediscover this kind of equanimity, even if the ultimate effect on this particular movie is The Smurfette Syndrome.

I'm not going to speculate as to where Michael Crichton, upon whose novel The Andromeda Strain is based, went so spectacularly wrong, but there was a time when he was a serious writer and a serious filmmaker. I mean, Westworld was a pretty goddamn good movie. So was Coma. That all said, the seeds of Crichton's later decline were there from the outset. Crichton was a strange guy: a science fiction writer who was, essentially, a luddite. His last book was a global warming denialist tract and almost all of his books are dire warnings about the perils of technology. Add in a certain amount of paranoia about the motives of a technological state and you have a writer who, at his best, was capable of crackerjack techno thrillers and who, more usually, was kind of a crank. But, as I say, this was all there at the outset. The paranoia film element of The Andromeda Strain is all of a piece with the rest of his work, from it's distrust of the effectiveness and the motives of science to its certainty that it will all run amok. Two scenes: First, the technology of Wildfire is so complex that whole house of cards is nearly undone by a slip of paper in a teletype. This is the chaos theory of Jurassic Park in prototype: for want of a nail the kingdom was lost. Second: James Olson's climb through the central core of Wildfire at the film's conclusion is technology actually turning hostile a la Westworld or Runaway. These tropes were fresh when The Andromeda Strain first deployed them, but it's hard to look back on them except through the lens of Crichton's other work.

This is a gorgeous movie, regardless. The sets are lavish--they actually dug Wildfire seventy feet into the ground--and the special effects have an "otherness" to them that is distinctive. Kudos to Douglas Trumbull and Boris Leven. But what really jumps off the screen at me is the way this is shot. Richard Cline shoots great whacks of this in an exaggerated deep-focus, punctuated by striking diopter shots in which very close objects are in the frame with very distant objects and everything is clear as a bell. There's a subtle distortion of the frame in some of these shots, or, rather, a kind of hyper-reality. When Wise choses to distort all of this deliberately and overtly in subjective shots from the points of view of both Dr. Leavitt and Dr. Hall (when he's been wounded by the lasers in the central core), he's playing on the same kinds of disorientation that made The Haunting so striking. I would suggest that the director was repeating himself if he hadn't set these shots in an autoclave rather than in a great Gothic mansion. For that matter, he's augmented it with a weird, atonal score by Gil Mellé that exists in confluence with an industrial silence of the subliminal hum of machines and the soft constant of air conditioning. And, hell, it all mostly works. It's a pretty terrific movie.


Aubyn said...

You could write a pretty hefty thesis paper on why science fiction movies so often seem anti-scientist and the lack of the scientific method seems to be part of it. In genre movies, it always seems like the scientists are the ones bringing down the wrath of nature with their pesky curiosity and it's up to square-jawed heroes with guns to set it right. Or if there is a heroic scientist, he or she is some ranting Jor-El figure, prophesying to people who ain't listening.

I think you're dead-right about the connection between science fiction and the whodunnit. I remember one of my old English professors advocating the theory that the detective novel is the epitome of literature since the reader is always playing the role of detective with every book they read. So why do scientists get a bad rap in movies?

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Rachel.

Scientists get a bad rap all right. I mean, they're great when they're providing the newest whizbang gadgets, but heaven forbid that they actually decode the way the universe works. That's knowledge that man was not meant to have (*rolls eyes*).

It's hard for me to think of very many scientists who resemble the scientists I actually know. I mean, there's this movie (which requires some special pleading), and there's, I dunno, Real Genius, maybe?

But, yeah. There's a thesis in it, to be sure.

I probably should have specified that I'm talking about science fiction movies, because literary sci fi has been doing whodunnits at least since Bester's The Demolished Man, if not Asimov's earliest robot stories.

Mykal said...

I will have to disagree with Rachel's premise that scientists are most often cast as the villains in sci-fi movies, at least sci-fi from the 1950s. To the contrary, in most of the core classics from this era (Them!, Invaders From Mars, It Came From Outer Space, Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Monster That Challenged the World) it is scientists, representing a kind of lone voice in the madness, that save the day over the blunt, violent alternatives offered by square-jawed types (usually cops or soldiers). In a host of others, “good” scientists save the day from “bad” (usually megalomaniacal) scientists (Kronos, Tarantula).

Yet, there is always an underlying terror in these movies of what science (in a general sense absence of specific characters) has wrought. This terror permeates much of atomic age sci-fi. I think that mankind’s eternal fascination and deeply subliminal distrust of science has always been variations on Shelly’s Frankenstein and even further back, to the biblical legend of the Tower of Babel (with a top so high it thrust into Heaven): Science is a challenge to the power of God – in a very real sense, science seeks to symbolically kill God. Even for the enlightened, this represents a colossal step. The complete abandonment of religious structure and “the mystery of faith” (which is, in essence, the destination of all science) promises for the vast many a very chilly and sterile world. Thus, scientists often get a sideways, distrustful look.

In the 1950s, after Trinity, Bikini Atoll; and most horrifically, Nagasaki and Hiroshima; the power unleashed seemed somehow beyond us – unnatural and Godlike itself. It was terrifying and, worst of all, mysterious and inhuman. Still today, watching the films of Trinity, seeing that mushroom cloud devour and bloom from the Earth of White Sands, it feels like the birth of a thing hideously wrong – as though we had finally crossed some bloody Rubicon.

That is one of the interesting complexities of 1950s sci-fi: The same era that burned the air of Hiroshima gave us a vaccine for Polio. It’s like we had gone too far to turn back. Only scientists could understand the new world and save us from “science.”

Aubyn said...

You're right, Mykal, I'll concede the point. I was admittedly speaking in generalities.

But I was also thinking of a lot of modern genre movies, whose heroes are often a mix of scientist and super soldier together, playing with test tubes for the first half and toting guns by the finale. The intellectual curiosity is sublimated in favor of direct action. But then, I feel like nowadays I don't see a lot of the pure, idea-driven science fiction that was so prevalent in the stories of the 50s and 60s. At least in mainstream Hollywood cinema--books and TV are somewhat different...

Mykal said...

"But I was also thinking of a lot of modern genre movies, whose heroes are often a mix of scientist and super soldier together . . ."

Agreed. Good one.

Ivan said...

Great essay and commentary/discussion on one of my faves. BTW, The Andromeda Strain is available via Netflix streaming for those who want to see it again--like me!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Ivan. Thanks for stopping by. I watched The Andromeda Strain on Netflix Instant, actually. The quallity of the image was surprisingly good. They've been steadily improving.