A&E’s remake of The Andromeda Strain was a 'blink and you’ll miss it' affair. Once upon a time, a lavish four-hour miniseries based on a Michael Crichton novel and executive produced by Ridley and Tony Scott would have been a headline television event. Those days are long gone.
Whether this re-make disappeared off the radar because of changing audience tastes, or because it was witless and inept, we’ll never know. Either way, audiences are lucky that this dreadful misfire will soon be buried in DVD remainder bins. The only point of interest in this dreadfully tedious affair is as a measuring stick, a point of reference for how far science fiction has regressed.
Originally a novel by Michael Crichton, and filmed for the first time in 1971, the story is about a team of scientists who race to find a cure for a mysterious pathogen that crashed to Earth. The original film is a worthwhile piece of work. On the surface, it’s awkward and dated. The main laboratory set is a late '60s version of cutting-edge modernity. It’s bright and clean, Kubrick-influenced sterility. The scientists are square-jawed and nondescript, blank cogs with little more than dot-matrix printers at their disposal.
Now, in the post-Matrix world, science has to be dimly lit with green fluorescent bulbs. Labs are built like submarines, and scientists stare at automated beakers controlled by hyperintelligent computers. The scientists are all attractive automatons, differentiated only by a daytime television cliche.
The remake re-invents almost nothing from the original novel. Since the scientists actually do very little science, the script pads out the running time with plenty of pseudo-science, giving every actor a chance to graft on some ludicrous exposition without actually explaining a thing. One of the most curious deletions in the re-make is the entry procedure into the high tech lab.
In the book, and in the 1971 version, entering the lab was a lengthy, multi-day process of decontamination. The scientists were symbolically purified from the outside in, stripping away layer after layer of contaminants until they reached the most medically pure state Crichton’s science could conceive of at the time.
It’s a fascinating sequence, especially in the novel, where the reader is confronted with a long inventory of potentially hazardous organisms that cover your body from hair to toenails. "We've faced up to quite a planning problem here. How to disinfect the human body — one of the dirtiest things in the known universe — without killing the person at the same time,” Crichton writes.
The 2008 version dispenses with such poetry – preferring instead a hybrid montage of showering shots that fetishizes water droplets, feet, and shampoo suds. And that, in a nutshell, is a metaphor for the complete failure of the modernized remake.
The 1971 version of The Andromeda Strain still holds together. It’s a tight, claustrophobic story that draws tension from paranoia and a fear of the unknown. The 2008 remake drowns out tension in an avalanche of memes, desperately reaching out for relevance and ironically, finding relevance only as a yardstick of failure.
Forty years from now we’ll be laughing at the current design concepts that ‘high-tech’ means inefficient lighting and space station architecture. And hopefully the next people who remake The Andromeda Strain understand that story is more than just randomly running your mouth, and that newer does not mean better when it comes to science.