The Andromeda Strain (TV, 2008)


This review is of the 2006 mini-series, not the 1969 film. It appeared in Death Ray 14.

FOUR STARS

2006 • 210mins

Director: Mikael Salomon

Writers: Robert Schenkkan, Michael Crichton (novel)

Starring: Benjamin Bratt, Eric McCormack, Christa Miller, Daniel Dae Kim, Viola Davis, Justin Louis, Barry Flatman, Ted Whittall

Michael Crichton’s perennial tale of rampant alien microbes gets a new on-screen treatment.

Michael Crichton MD, the renaissance man of Hollywood, made his name as a writer with 1969′s The Andromeda Strain. Its story is a typical Crichton plot of science-heavy science fiction, seasoned with hubris and delivered in slick techno-thriller wrappings.

A satellite collecting samples of extraterrestrial biological material for weapons research plummets to earth. It brings with it the deadly Andromeda Strain, a microbe with a sulphur-based body chemistry and an ability to rapidly mutate, and it begins to kill. A team of scientists, codenamed Wildfire, are activated and locked into an underground base with the bacillus, and tasked with finding a way to kill it. As with all hi-tech bases in fiction, it goes wrong, and the story climaxes with a desperate race against time to shut down the self-destruct mechanism before its atomic bomb scatters the hardy Andromeda around the globe. The first adaptation of the book film, in 1971 by Star Trek The Motion Picture director Robert Wise, is perhaps better known than the novel. It was an artful affair, painting the screen bright with the sort of bold experimental colour usage that so characterised 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film is faithful to the text, though the bug itself is relatively easily defeated in the movie, the novel’s warning on technological progress (a favourite of Crichton’s), showing men as overshadowed by their own machine creations, is amplified, and is far more important to Wise’s vision. It is, however, as slow and portentous as Wise’s later attempt to boldly go.

That’s always a danger with man vs microbe. Sure, it makes for a fertile ground for SF ideas, but turning it into a screen-friendly story, that’s another matter. A lot of men standing in a laboratory yacking away about desperate hypotheses as the clock counts down to midnight can make for awfully dull entertainment. The Sci-Fi Channel have tried to get round this by complicating the plot. A romance, environmentalist themes, and a discourse on the freedom of the press have been bunged in for good measure. But the real meat of the drama comes in the internecine tussle between governmental departments as they strive to keep their various dirty little black projects out of the eyeline of the idealistic President Scott (an obvious Clinton analogue). Skullduggery, assassination and blackmail weave in and out of the underground techno-wrangling. Progress has been replaced by the Feds as the bogeyman here, though techno-fear remains perinent. And it doesn’t stop there. The novel could be rightly regarded as an example of pure SF (it’s very plausible, accurate science, but it’s fiction, d’you see?) a lot more  SF-ery is pumped into this adaptation, and it’s not all plausible. Do we have just evil space microbes? No sir! Time travel, deep-ocean vent mining, hive-intelligence, nanotechnology and a possible paradox join the party of speculative ideas. Plenty for our team of three men and two women to muse over (each version of The Andromeda Strain has added an extra lady to the team. That and changes to the ethnic make-up of Wildfire are part of a further raft of harmless, cosmetic updates to the tale).

Do you know what? It all kind of works, although I’m saying that with reservations. There’s certainly never a dull moment, never a time that you get in most mini-series of preset length where you know a bunch of scenes only got in because the film was running short. As slight as some of the additions are, The Andromeda Strain is exceptionally well-paced. You’ll barely notice that the journalist subplot is essentially pointless. The performances are generally good, and CG has opened up certain possibilities that can, if employed well, enrich such fare, and it is employed well in; mostly to advance the plot, rarely for needless spectacle, so you can overlook its cartoony, made-for-TV feel.

This not-quite-top-quality slickness permeates the whole thing. It’s too all-inclusive of beloved post-modern SF tropes, like a giant X-Files smoothy, it’s got a bit of everything low-fi SF can offer. Crichton’s banana-flavour techno-fear is washed out by a torrent of anti-governmental raspberry. There’s no space for tension, too much zooming about in helicopters for claustrophobia to set in. Sometimes more is simply too much, so much in fact that that most annoying of narrative glue has to be employed – coincidence. There’s an awful lot of serendipitous happenings going, and there has to be, just to get all the bits to stick together, while the scientists are prone to making pretty big leaps of logic (‘It’s from the future!’ being one of them), in a very unscientific manner. Where Crichton’s stripped-down science puzzler was plausible, and so by extension, was Wise’s, this bloated adaptation tests the bounds of believability. It’s trying for action movie on top of Crichton’s original intentions, and there’s not enough room left for the story’s original intentions.

You get the feeling all this extra gubbins is introduced to make it more… more eventful. That’s probably the right word, because this is the kind of telly networks make and show to be event TV. Often these things are eminently missable. There’s a five grade sliding Haley scale for mini-series: Avoid; watch if caught; enjoy if watched and caught; stay in for; seek out. By my reckoning, it’s a category four. Rather have stars? Suit yourself, they’re at the top.

Did you know…?

Benjamin Bratt, who plays lead Dr. Jeremy Stone, is half Quechua Indian and half American.

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