Steven’s Science in Cinema: The Andromeda Strain (1971)

Andromeda Strain 1971

The Andromeda Strain (1971), directed by Robert Wise, can be found among almost every “must watch” sci-fi film list. Aside from its outstanding reviews in the sci-fi community, this film is also revered for its amazing scientific accuracy at the time. Some of the science is a little outdated, but in the 70’s, this film held up with most of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and microbiology practices at the time. Before I start pointing out some of the amazing accuracies, there is an unforgettable scar in the movie for some terrible inaccuracy.

Before the elite group of scientists return to their laboratory to identify the extra-terrestrial microorganism from the outbreak zone, they must go through a decontamination and immunization process. The primary flaw in this scene is that the scientists expose themselves to a xenon light in order to burn their top layer of epithelium (skin). Yes, the human body does have a layer of flora, which is essentially an ecosystem of friendly microorganisms living on the skin, and if you want to keep a lab COMPLETELY sterile, the flora would be an issue.

The issue, however, is that this burning process will not only be equivalent to a severe sunburn, but you would be exposed to a severe risk of infection since flora acts as a shield to foreign microorganisms which may cause you to become sick. In addition to the severe “sunburn” that these individuals would experience, they wouldn’t be able to exit a completely sterile environment without the risk of a deadly infection. The severe “sunburn” would also result in severe dehydration. This is extremely similar to having a full-body burn and having to be in a burn unit. Not only is this extremely dangerous, but it is also unnecessary because covering your skin with a sterile article of clothing would have the same effect (Which they do after the burning process). Immunization was mentioned during this process as well, but immunization would require a vaccine of some sort to prime the body’s immune system. In this case, it would mean the human population would have had to have been exposed to this extra-terrestrial pathogen and made a vaccine during this previous exposure. However, this was the first time that earth was exposed to this pathogen, therefore it would be impossible to have an immunization process already made.


Aside from these flaws, the rest of the film is extremely accurate. The following are examples of accuracy within the movie. It is quite impressive that they included these and shows the hard work of the director:

  • All of the robotics and technology are good examples of an extremely technologically advanced laboratory, but most labs are perfectly fine without the use of robotics, so you wouldn’t commonly see these robotics in a lab.
  • The scientist’s primary goal of isolating, identifying, and containing the foreign pathogen is an actual protocol and methodology that the CDC would take in order to handle any outbreak, and their techniques used in a lab are accurate to what would be performed as well.
  • The idea of a random foreign extraterrestrial pathogen causing an outbreak/epidemic/pandemic is plausible and is an actual concern that NASA has for returning astronauts. NASA will put returning astronauts in isolation until they are cleared. Pathogens are host specific, meaning they typically can only infect one species. The chances that an alien pathogen will have a correct mechanism to allow for human infection to occur is farfetched, but not impossible and could easily result in an outbreak/epidemic/pandemic due to lack of previous exposure.
  • The idea of a pathogen mutating and eating synthetic materials is improbable, but not impossible because there are bacteria on earth that have been found to have the ability to consume synthetic materials such as plastic, and some microbes do have high mutation rates when compared to human cells. However, this mutation seemed to be a direct response towards the situation it was in (it was trapped in plastic then it developed the ability to destroy plastic). This cannot happen since mutations are random, but it could have mutated randomly to get this ability. It is unlikely but not impossible. Oddly enough, the bacteria that naturally eat plastic material was discovered in 2016, so it is very enticing to see the director “predict” this feature in a microorganism.
  • The slow redundancy of lab work portrayed in this film was accurate. Nothing happened extremely fast until it became life or death, but the lab work was slow and systematic, which is realistic to a lab setting– science takes time! The scientific process in this film is portrayed honestly and factually.

It is immensely fascinating to see the portrayal of the characterization of an unknown pathogen, providing honest detail to the lab work. It is a rare treat to see the scientific process take more than ten seconds to make a great discovery, as it is portrayed in most films. I was excited to review this film, but there was a lot more that I wish I could have explored. Due to the high amount of accuracy and the lack of space, I had to cut some out. Next week, I will be doing a review of the James Bond movie Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes, which will feature a review of computer science and chemistry!

–Steven Zeko, Film Blogger

Steven’s Bio:

Steven Zeko
Steven Zeko

Steven Zeko is a senior at Lewis University, working towards a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education. Currently, he is involved in immunology research and Chem-ED research. Following his education, Steven wants to teach Biology, Chemistry, and Physics at a high school level. In his free time, Steven enjoys playing video games, reading, playing golf, and watching movies. He is typically reading two books at any given time, with one book being a science book and the other being any good book that he can find. Currently, Steven is reading Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Educated by Tara Westover. His fascination with science began when he was a kid by watching the works of Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Both being wonderful STEM educators, he hopes to invoke their ability to energize a crowd just by educating people about science.




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