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TV Review: The Andromeda Strain

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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.

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About Jeffrey Williams

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ Elliott

    Good review.

    A few points:

    ***SPOILERS AHEAD***

    – Did anyone else notice the random, apropos-of-nothing Republican-bashing dialogues that would occasionally pop up in this movie? Gays in the military, long Iraq War deployments, Reagan armed Saddam with WMDs, underfunding of Homeland Security, etc. These little political digs did nothing to advance the plot, but merely served to distract me from my suspension of disbelief.

    – The ending was sort of unexplained. It offered an ontological paradox which left the more intellectually curious with some serious questions. Of course, pretty much any movie that involves time travel has to deal with this. But here the filmmakers seem to have left it more ambiguous than necessary.

    – What was the point of having the druggie reporter as a major character? Was it just to make the movie long enough to qualify for “mini-series” status?

    – Was the thumb-throwing scene even close to realistic? Would someone who apparently throws like a girl (and is in his death throes) be able to toss a severed human thumb straight up about 100 feet while debris is falling all around him? And why would someone die from radiation poisoning in just 30 seconds? And how could anyone recover from a grand mal seizure so quickly?

    – Why would the stoned chick in the desert completely abandon her apparent boyfriend, leave him to die alone without a thought, and then be happily doing drugs and flirting with the druggie reporter less than 24 hours later?

    – Why does the President have a news conference on the atomic “accident” when he could have realistically gotten away with a simple brief statement (and no questions)?

    – Why the hell would he continue to support mining the ocean floor when he knows that doing so will destroy the only bacteria capable of fighting the Andromeda Strain? And why isn’t a sample of this bacteria sent to every university and government facility in the country as insurance against a possible future outbreak?

    – So, we are capable of deciphering encrypted codes in futuristic buckyballs (nanotechnology) and curing a disease never seen before on Earth that completely lacks DNA and mutates in mere hours and is able to communicate with disparate parts, all within a couple days and with five scientists, but we still can’t cure the common cold?

    – These scientists have time to sleep and exercise while the fate of all life on Earth is literally hanging in the balance?

    I have other complaints about this movie, but that should suffice for now…

  • Ivan

    Didn’t everyone notice the Time Loop factor in all of this?

    I’m not a mathematician but to me this would be the second time that the People from the Future sent the Virus to the past. Think about it. There was no way that they could have known the containment code for storage the first time they sent the virus. Only the second time they sent it could they have known, because the Virus will eventually break out yet again. But there is a problem with this theory. It says to me that it will break out again and the guys from the future are warning where it’s coming from (specifically the storage casing it was placed in at the Space Station). This makes no sense because…

    In the end the Virus must still have to have an Origin.
    It is even a moot point to even tell the Audience that it is in the containment Area aboard the Space Station because in the Future the Virus will still…

    A. Be created in a Lab by someone or a Group
    B. It is sent to Earth from an Invading Species bent on Destroying Humans and all life.

    What I’m stating is, the Virus Will break out regardless of it being on the Space Station at the time in the Future. I thought at first that Dr. Charlene Barton would be the deciding factor in preventing the Virus but this isn’t so.

    These series of events will happen again and again unless there is some divergence in time preventing this from recurring.
    As it stands, and I didn’t read the book or if it has a sequel but to me this is just going to loop over and over again.

    The people in the Future will have to tell those in the past who will create the Virus or if Aliens created it and to tell them how to stop it in the Future. I think from the moment they are stopped in the future then the past as well as the Future (Present) will be saved.This might be the only way of stopping the Paradox.

    On another note:
    I was wondering did Dr. Tsi Chou really have to immerse his whole body in the Coolant to get to the thumb? To me I think he could have just reached over with just a little effort. Also why so Cryptic from the future if they knew the organization would take it yet again. Kinda lame not to tell them, for so much trouble! Also does it take so much code to make a rotating insignia? It would have saved them alot of trouble and encoding if they just made a static jpeg, lol. This way they would have had more room for actual text.

  • Dave

    Very disappointing. Full of cliches, fake science, and bad TV acting.
    Probably most annoying was the complete lack of urgency on the scientists’ part… they spent more time talking over coffee than working!
    The original 1971 version is an A-, this version was C- (and that’s being generous).

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