As a kid, I remember rushing home from school to catch The Andromeda Strain on TV. KOAT split it in half and showed it on successive days of “Dialing for Dollars.” That was a good couple of days.
Robert Wise’s patient adaptation of Michael Crichton’s techno-medical thriller remains a hallmark of ’70s paranoia cinema. Unfortunately, Hollywood no longer does paranoia quite like it did in the ’70s (The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, The Conversation, etc.). It’s not that people have become more trusting of those in power; it’s just that they’ve become more numb to it all. Americans are perfectly capable of getting outraged over, say, the government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and concocting all sorts of conspiracy theories regarding it—but a week later, we’re bored with the idea. Which makes it an interesting time to try and revive The Andromeda Strain.
Produced by Hollywood bigwigs Ridley and Tony Scott (Gladiator, Top Gun and dozens more), a new two-night, four-hour miniseries version will air on A&E over the Memorial Day weekend. The cast is stuffed with recognizable TV actors: Benjamin Bratt (“Law & Order”), Andre Braugher (“Homicide: Life on the Street”), Daniel Dae Kim (“Lost”), Eric McCormack (“Will & Grace”), Christa Miller (“Scrubs”) and Ricky Schroder (“Silver Spoons”). Throw in a somewhat sizable budget and a lot of advertising and you’ve got TV’s newest event movie.
This updated version swings farther afield from Crichton’s tight novel. As it begins, a government satellite has crash-landed in the Utah desert. A couple of teens lug the device back to their tiny hometown, unleashing a lethal plague. Hoping to contain (cover up?) whatever is causing these mysterious deaths, the U.S. government enlists a ragtag band of scientists and medical experts. This brainy group is sequestered in a secret underground bunker and tasked with finding and stopping the so-called “Andromeda Strain.”
Longer even than Wise’s 131-minute 1971 version, this Andromeda Strain shoehorns in a “24”-sized cast of presidents, generals, reporters, innocent civilians and rogue government agents. Spending as much time out of the laboratory as in it, the new screenplay loses some of the claustrophobic, ticking-clock paranoia of the original. In an effort to contemporize the story, filmmakers have also added an “environmental” theme and some more heavily science-fictional twists (almost too much to believe). Unfortunately, there’s so much foreshadowing on display, nothing amounts to much of a surprise.
The acting is mostly good, with the various personalities and backgrounds of our intrepid investigators bouncing off one another. All the newly added story lines allow for more gunfights and explosions but leave us less time to explore our core characters. Who cares about people, though, when we’ve got CGI?
The Andromeda Strain is slick, violent and intermittently thrilling—all in all, not bad for basic cable on a holiday weekend. But what it gains in digitally inserted gouts of blood, it loses in pure, spine-tingling Vietnam-era tension.