Where’s Captain Dylan Hunt and the Nietzcheans?
When it was published in 1969, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain was an overnight success, based on the simple idea that mankind’s first contact with alien life is more likely to be with a virus than with little green men. The book delivered numerous then-exotic ideas, from simple things like scientists wearing hazmat suits, to bigger ideas, such as threats of worldwide biological warfare. It was adapted into a hit film by the always-versatile Robert Wise (West Side Story), and has since become such a pop culture staple that any new disease spotlighted in the media—everything from Bird Flu to Ebola to even AIDS—gets compared to Crichton’s fictional virus.
Naturally, the ouroboros that is Hollywood has decided to give The Andromeda Strain the remake treatment. After years of development and deal-making with numerous cable channels, the project finally ended up on A&E, with its release on DVD a mere week after it aired. Do producers assume people will either watch it live or wait for the DVD, so they’re going after both groups at once? Or do they think everyone will be so jazzed after seeing it that they’ll want to buy it and watch it again immediately? Who knows. Trying to figure out how Hollywood producers think can be the pathway to madness, so let’s just focus on the DVD, shall we?
A strange object falls from the sky outside a small town in Utah. A day or two later, and everyone in town has dropped dead. The army is called in to secure the scene, and a general (Andre Braugher, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer) helps gather a team of elite scientists in a confined, underground lab to discover the cause of these deaths and, hopefully, a cure.
Meanwhile, an investigative reporter (Eric McCormack, Will and Grace) has caught wind of what’s happening, and pokes his nose where it doesn’t belong, running afoul of both politicians and trigger-happy soldiers.
It doesn’t take long for the scientists to determine that a deadly virus is at work, codenamed “Andromeda.” Worse, it’s spreading fast. Now, they’ve got to come up with a cure before the President signs an order to nuke Utah, potentially starting an international incident or, worse, making Andromeda even stronger.
As a critic, I think there’s some sort of bylaw that requires me to complain about remakes, but in this case, I have to admit bringing The Andromeda Strain into 2008 is a great idea. With biotechnology, genetic engineering and eco-terrorism all being hot topics, the potential exists for a new Andromeda Strain to be a modernized remake along the lines of Carpenter’s The Thing or Cronenberg’s The Fly—taking the core concept and using to highlight the fears and paranoia of the time. This remake doesn’t reach those heights, but the creators deserve kudos for trying.
This new version of the story is a mixed bag. It does a lot of things right, with some tense moments, some creepy scenes in the town full of dead bodies, and a suitably gripping cliffhanger at the end of part one. Unfortunately, there are also a number of narrative missteps along the way that prevent it from achieving the greatness it’s aspiring to.
First off, this being a two-part miniseries instead of a feature means there’s a lot of padding going on. I kept waiting for McCormack’s character’s plotline to intersect in a meaningful way with the scientists’ plotline, but the two never really came together, except for a few info-sharing scenes. I kept waiting for McCormack to make some discovery that would get passed along to the scientists at a key point during the finale, but that never really happened. Instead, his character is here mostly to get the camera away from the lab and outdoors, for lots of running around, getting chased, getting shot at, etc.
I can see why the filmmakers would want to beef up the action, but, honestly, I think spending so much time away from the lab harms the story. Part of what made Crichton’s book and Wise’s film so memorable was the sense of claustrophobia in that underground lab. Both spend a good amount of detail on the almost absurd decontamination process the scientists must go through. Not only did this emphasize the seriousness of the Andromeda virus, but it also showed readers/viewers that this is the point of no return. Once you enter this lab, there’s no coming back out until either the job is done or everyone’s dead. In 2008, the decontamination is filmed in a “music video” style, all with slow-mo shots, funky lighting, and new age-y music. It certainly looks pretty, but it lacks that uncomfortable and frightening “what have I gotten myself into” feeling that it should have.
Furthermore, with the fate of the world at stake, these scientists sure do have a lot of down time in the lab. They have a Star Trek-style computer, so all they have to do is say, “Computer, run a scan on such-and-such,” and the computer announces that it’ll take an hour to do that, so we get scenes where our scientists settle down with a cup of coffee and chat for a while as they’re waiting. I for one would have preferred it if the director and actors had gone for broke and really cranked up the tension in all the scenes in the lab. As it is now, I never really believe that the fate of the world rests on this handful of experts, sealed away from the outside world in cold, sterile lab.
Yeah, I haven’t mentioned most of the cast yet. Our heroic band of scientists is made up of Benjamin Bratt (Law & Order), Daniel Dae Kim (Lost), Krista Miller (The Drew Carey Show), Viola Davis (Disturbia), and a completely unrecognizable Rick Schroder (NYPD Blue) as a military tough guy with a secret. That’s a pretty good cast, actually, but none of them really rises above the material. Daniel Dae Kim is especially underused, which is unfortunate considering how good he was as the brainy Gavin Park on Angel.
My other big concern with the miniseries was how Andromeda itself is portrayed. There didn’t seem to be a lot of consistency with the sinister virus. Some of its victims drop dead instantly, while others are driven temporarily insane (conveniently, these victims usually carry a weapon of some kind). The big cliffhanger separating the two parts of the miniseries has to do with Andromeda developing a corrosive ability, so that it rapidly dissolves any non-organic materials it comes across, such as plastic, rubber, or metal. This corrosive effect could have been really scary, with fears that if it spread across the country, or even the world, that it could cause apocalyptic amounts of damage. Unfortunately, this element of the virus isn’t handled with much consistency, so that Andromeda is only corrosive at times when the creators need a special effects scene to keep viewers interested.
A much bigger offense, though, comes at the end of the miniseries, when the filmmakers go to ridiculous lengths to make Andromeda visual. I get it—when the villain in your movie is a microscopic virus, you’ve got to think of some way to get across to viewers that it’s a real, tangible threat. In my opinion, the best way to accomplish this would be with subtlety. The filmmakers, however, go the opposite route. The special effect employed in the finale, though, pushes that idea too far, giving Andromeda physicality to the point where it’s actually able to chase human characters over hillsides. This should have been the big adrenaline rush to end the show, but, instead, it made me say, “oh, brother.”
The picture and audio here is excellent, with bright, vivid colors, and booming, immersive sound and music. The highlight of the extras is a commentary running the entire length of the miniseries with director Mikael Salomon (the 2004 Salem’s Lot miniseries) along with the editor and producers, in which they discuss the project’s origins, its years-long journey through development hell, and anecdotes from the set. From there, we’ve got a promotional behind-the-scenes featurette, a special effects breakdown featurette, and two photo galleries.
Filmmakers Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) and Tony Scott (Crimson Tide) have their names all over the packaging as co-producers. They’re barely mentioned in the bonus features, though, so if you are checking out this release solely because of the Scott brothers’ involvement, you might walk away disappointed. (That being said, could you just imagine how awesome it would’ve been if Sir Ridley had directed this. Just imagine…)
Despite all of my negative criticisms above, I didn’t totally hate The Andromeda Strain. Some scenes in the lab genuinely create the tension that the subject matter needs, and some of the above-ground set pieces really are exciting. Unfortunately, I’m afraid the bad outweighs the good on this one, making it something of a mixed opportunity. It should make a nice rainy Saturday rental, but not much else.