An alien virusís brief pit stop in the new American West, starkly documented by Michael Crichton and Robert Wise. A satellite crashes in a New Mexico burg, soon the place is filled with bodies whose circulatory systems have turned to powder -- these are the best sequences, full of hushed dread and unnerving use of widescreen dead spaces (the camera focuses on the placid, dusty face of a fallen villager, then tilts up to frame a couple of researchers approaching in hazmat suits and a helicopter whirring against a cobalt sky). The scientific team is rounded up: Exposition-dispenser Arthur Hill, surgeon James Olson (who gets a crush on the computerís female voice), splenetic researcher Kate Reid, and veteran doctor David Wayne ("A hippie! Heís going to a love-in," his suspicious wife cries as he packs for the secret mission). As befits a biological procedural, the already ponderous pace slows down to a crawl as the quartet makes its way through level after level of sterilization at an underground Nevada laboratory. (All the plodding repetition is worth it for Reidís double-take as she learns that the coat of chalk covering her body is the charred remains of her outer skin layer.) The only contaminated survivors are a soused old man (George Mitchell) and a bawling baby, the interplanetary visitor is identified as an olive spatter which dilates into molecular origami patterns on an animated screen. All too clearly the bridge between The Day the Earth Stood Still and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the picture handles the material too literally: Covert germ warfare is dutifully alluded ("Establishment gonna go boom," Reid snaps), yet Wise settles for Olson dodging laser beams instead of noticing, like Burroughs did, that "language is a virus from space." Bringing Vietnam into the equation is a job for Romero (The Crazies), though the film nevertheless manages to close on a disquieting note, with Douglas Trumbullís ominous solarized abstractions suggesting a sort of computer-age lettrism. With Paula Kelly, Ramon Bieri, and Peter Hobbs.
--- Fernando F. Croce