Alien invasion movies come in all different shapes and sizes. They can be special effects-heavy blockbuster war movies or contemplative meditations on humanity’s shortcomings. In other words, for every Edge of Tomorrow, there’s also an Arrival.
But The Andromeda Strain is a very different kind of alien invasion movie. Released in 1971, the film keeps its locations and scope fairly contained, investing just as much in its human characters as it does in the extraterrestrial threat they face. The Andromeda Strain doesn’t focus on the physical, warlike form of invasion often seen in other sci-fi films either. Instead, the film attempts to combine the alien invasion and pandemic thriller genres into one — and it does so to devastating effect.
It’s available to stream now for free online on Tubi. Here’s why you need to check it out.
Based on a 1969 novel of the same name by sci-fi icon Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain focuses on efforts by a group of scientists to contain and understand a dangerous extraterrestrial organism that’s made its way to Earth. The film takes place primarily within the confines of a sealed-off underground facility — one designed to be destroyed the moment it looks like the alien pathogen might escape.
By keeping its locations limited, The Andromeda Strain achieves a claustrophobic effect that only grows more effective as the film continues. That feeling of claustrophobia also helps to heighten the film’s unshakable sense of dread, which escalates as its central team of scientists learn about the alien organism.
In that sense, The Andromeda Strain sometimes feels more like a cosmic horror film than it does an alien invasion thriller. While it doesn’t ever depict any of the kind of giant Lovecraftian enemies typically associated with cosmic horror, it does tap into the feeling of helplessness that’s integral to that genre. Watching The Andromeda Strain, you begin to feel like the film’s characters are fighting an uphill battle, not against alien invaders but against nature itself. Alex Garland’s Annihilation achieved a similar effect, and that thematic richness is a large part of what makes The Andromeda Strain so effective.
Director Robert Wise may be most well-known for directing sweeping Hollywood musicals like The Sound of Music and West Side Story, but he’s tapping into a different kind of skillset in The Andromeda Strain. While Wise remains highly capable of communicating scale throughout the film, it’s his ability to create tension and atmosphere that’s most notable in The Andromeda Strain. As a result, the film feels more akin to some of Wise’s darker outings as a director — especially the 1963 horror classic The Haunting.
The film isn’t an empty exercise in tension and paranoia. As we emerge from 2020, The Andromeda Strain’s warnings about society’s struggle with handling dangerous biological developments on a mass scale remain as relevant and compelling as ever. And the film’s final, ominous moments only drive those themes home.
The Andromeda Strain isn’t talked about a lot these days, and it’s beginning to feel like a bit of a forgotten gem. That’s a shame, considering just how interesting and singular of an experience it is. The film uses many concepts and narrative elements that we’ve seen before in plenty of other sci-fi films, but it combines them in a genuinely unique way that makes it well-worth seeking out.
The Andromeda Strain streaming for free right now on Tubi in the U.S.