Preview: The Andromeda Strain (mini-series)

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

In the US: Memorial Day, 9pm/8c, A&E
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Didn’t I say you should own this a while ago? Oh wait it’s a remake. A mini-series in fact. Let’s start again then.

Michael Jurassic Park/Westworld/Disclosure/Rising Sun Crichton’s first novel was The Andromeda Strain, a scary little book that asked the question "What if an alien virus that was absolutely virulent and lethal came to Earth? What would it be like and how would we deal with it?" After becoming a bestseller, it got turned into a rather excellent movie (which you should own) back in the early 70s.

So do we need a remake? Interesting question, too. Before watching this two-part mini-series, I’d have said no, even if it is "presented by" Tony and Ridley Scott, especially since it’s showing on A&E, which hasn’t done much decent for about a decade.

But you know what? It’s not half bad. It’s different in a lot of ways. It’s better in a lot of ways, too. But is it the best Andromeda Strain so far?

Plot
A U.S. satellite crash-lands near a small town in Utah, unleashing a deadly plague that kills virtually everyone except two survivors, who may provide clues to immunizing the population. As the military attempts to quarantine the area, a team of highly specialized scientists is assembled to find a cure and stop the spread of the alien pathogen, code-named Andromeda.

Is it any good?
This is where I was surprised. At first, I thought it was going to be a typical piece of dumbing down. The Andromeda Strain was, as mentioned earlier, one of the most scientific of science fiction movies, almost glorying in science for science’s sake. It had no pretty faces, no massive explosions, just a load of scary ideas depicted on a cold, technical stage, with some wonderfully claustrophic music by Gil Mellé.

And at first glance, we got none of that. We get a load of pretty faces, including Benjamin Bratt (Miss Congeniality), Daniel Dae Kim (Lost), Ricky Schroder (24), Andre Braugher (Thief), Viola Davis (Traveler) and Christa Miller (Scrubs). There’s soapiness, with ex-wives, children, ex-lovers, etc, popping up out the woodwork. There’s a junky journalist (McCormack) looking for a scoop. The military are all over the place with their big guns, explosions, nuclear weapons and more. And the music doesn’t compare in the slightest.

But… the thing about both The Andromeda Strain and The Andromeda Strain, since the movie is a faithful recreation of the book, is that they just stop short of greatness. It is very much a first novel, and I imagine if Crichton were to write the book today, he’d come up with this version.

In science, you normally solve one problem and the bigger picture has to arrive another day. So the book never explains where Andromeda comes from or what it really is. You have to accept it’s arrived from outer space and it needs dealing with. There are also all sorts of convenient happenings that don’t make much sense and odd leaps that never really get explained. 

This mini-series essentially fills in the blanks, takes a look at the other plot problems, and re-arranges everything, comes up with better solutions and tones down the scientific hyperbole. Loopholes around mutation, pHs and more are squashed – quite sensibly. Pages long explanations of decontamination procedures are reduced to a few minutes, thankfully.

Part one is probably the more faithful of the episodes, and if you’ve watched the film or read the book, you’ll think you’ll know where this is all going. Part two pulls the rug out from under you, so don’t think you know what’s going to happen next. Major plots become minor; minor plot points become major; Andromeda becomes even more scary than the book’s Andromeda: this isn’t your daddy’s Andromeda Strain.

But it’s all a little more implausible. It’s not unscientific: there have been nearly four decades of scientific discoveries in biology since the book was written and this takes in bacteriophages, et al. But there are certainly points where you do have to suspend disbelief considerably, particularly when Andromeda is at its most contagious. Worse still, the gaps in Andromeda’s background and function are filled in with pure science fiction, making the threat less general and less likely.

It has other flaws, too. There’s the usual Tony Scott militaristic bombast, even though he’s not the director. In making Andromeda more virulent, the plot requires more people to be affected than just poor old Piedmont, making it like an episode of House, with "who’s next and how are they going to die?" being constant questions. And the whole junkie journo plot is just pointless, serving purely to add a conspiracy theory element to a story that didn’t need it.

All the same, it’s a pretty good three hours of sci-fi, with some surprising twists and some quite scary moments. Although old-school fans will miss and probably prefer the quietly clinical movie, this isn’t a bad updating. It’s pretty smart, if implausible at times, and there’s a nice paradox that opens the way up for an obvious sequel if it’s successful.

Here’s a trailer/behind the scenes documentary with a few spoilers:

 

 




  • Do we need a remake? Maybe not, but I’d like Toobworld to have its own version anyway. I’m selfish that way.
    Thinking about the original makes me wonder about whatever happened to James Olson. A check of the IMDb shows that he hasn’t had an acting credit since 1990, which is far too long for somebody who seemed to be on all of the drama series back in the late 60s and throughout the 70s.
    I realize he’s way up in his 70s by now, but even so I think that as he got older he should have been more in demand as a character actor. The one performance I own of his is in a ‘Columbo’ episode, but I figure ‘Andromeda’ and ‘Ragtime’ were the highpoints of his career…..

  • Phoenix

    So the book never explains where Andromeda comes from or what it really is. You have to accept it’s arrived from outer space and it needs dealing with.

    It’s explained in the book. The government was sending probes into the upper atmosphere to scoop up whatever they could find, the idea being that without the Earth’s atmosphere protecting them, the viruses up there would be highly mutated. It wasn’t alien in the sense of being from outer space, just in the sense of being not from ground level.
    I haven’t watched the mini, and I might not now, after watching that trailer. Seriously? The virus is communicating with itself to mutate? Drivel. Also, see how many more times you can play that same squilching sound clip. Bah.

  • “It’s explained in the book”
    That’s not an explanation as such – that’s an assumption, the assumption behind Project Scoop. It might be true, it might not, and both the book and the film also hint Andromeda might be a message, a weapon or a form of intelligent life (maybe).
    “The virus is communicating with itself to mutate? Drivel”
    Yep. It’s Burning Zone daft in that sense. The trailer, though, is poorer than the mini-series, I would say.

  • The Burning Zone? WOOP – WOOP – STINKER ALERT!!! Anyway, we can make up our minds in a week or two when it starts on Sky’s movie channels.

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  • Just got around to finishing the two-part movie. I was watching an hour every couple of days. That doesn’t argue in favor of it being compelling, but I usually only have a three hour window for watching TV and I have quite a backlog!
    But overall, I found the first hour intriguing, perhaps due to its adherence to what I remembered of the movie and book. The last hour was intense and even if it was a bit predictable, kept me on edge. The middle two hours primarily served as a conduit from the first to the last.
    So not a great piece of work, but far better than I was expecting. (Which was before I read your review – that amped my interest in it.)

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