It's tempting to call "The Andromeda Strain," A&E's "epic television event" miniseries, a non-event. Despite solid ratings making it one of the most watched programs in the cable channel's history when it premiered last month, most of those who tuned in walked away feeling unimpressed - or worse - by the two-part program's attempts to beef up Michael Crichton's debut novel with dopey subplots, silly upgrades, and an overload of hand-wringing melodrama. Besides, Crichton's book already has an excellent adaptation: the thrilling (if dated) 1971 Robert Wise film. Why bother with a clumsy remake?
The plot's sorta the same as the Crichton novel and the Wise movie, tweaked by screenwriter Robert Schenkkan (who also penned the 2004 miniseries remake of "Spartacus") to include a few ideas that almost work and a few more than don't. In what appears to be the near future, a satellite has crashed in Utah, and it's brought a mysterious virus back to Earth with it. To some, the virus causes instant, horrible death; to others, it slowly drives the victim insane, leading to murder and suicide. When a military unit called to investigate dies on the scene, a scientific task force is assembled, then locked away in a top secret bunker to figure out why two otherwise unrelated townsfolk survived, and how that link might help stop the virus.
That bit's on par with what we know from Crichton, who loves to write about groups of scientists sitting around, trading ideas, talking techno-babble. And not surprisingly, when the scientists in "Andromeda" team up for a round of geek chat, the program becomes quite interesting. Even Schenkkan's additions in this corner of the story work well (namely, there's some fun sci-fi nonsense about a recently discovered wormhole, nanotechnology, coded messages, and time travel), as the cast (among them Benjamin Bratt, Viola Davis, Daniel Dae Kim, Christa Miller, and a surprisingly good Ricky Schroeder) does an able job of making the talk-heavy scenes zing with a much needed crispness.
Ah, but in a miniseries designed from the blueprints of a disaster movie, geek chat can only go so far. We're first tossed a subplot involving investigative reporter/recovering addict Jack Nash (Eric McCormack) eager to get the scoop on the deaths in Utah; not only is the following on-the-run-from-corrupt-government-agents stuff weak and uninvolving, it's also so far removed from the main plot that it feels less like essential drama and more like desperate filler. (The conspiracy angle is so vague, so unclear, so undercooked, I wonder if the filmmakers just figured that the general idea of a conspiracy was enough, and that coming up with specifics would only waste energy.) A second subplot featuring the President (Ted Whittall) fizzles upon arrival, as does a trouble-at-home backstory for Bratt's character that feels grafted straight out of one of Irwin Allen's all-star disasterthons of the 1970s.
Then there are the death scenes, added to give the miniseries a certain horror movie vibe. And sometimes, it works; shots of wiggly people screaming as they spasm and collapse hit the right notes, as does the occasional scene of psychotic rampage in, say, a friendly diner. But for all their jolts, these moments never quite fit into the overall story. Too often, the script goes too far out of its way to include these bits (one's even a wholly unnecessary flashback), just for gratuitous thrills. Such scenes shift the tone of the miniseries considerably, leaving the story feeling disjointed.
In fact, the whole program is a struggle for tone and style. With too many character threads and too many ideas floating about, the viewer is left swinging from government conspiracy thriller to science-centric mystery to soapish melodrama to flimsy action. (Please don't ask about the awful fast-paced finale, which hinges on a character's ability to throw a severed thumb up a nuclear reactor. Yes, really.) With all these tonal changes, the rhythm's all over the place, and for every admirable bit of solid sci-fi drama, there's a clunky slice of overwrought rubbish that reminds us we're watching a goofy TV movie.
Schenkkan, perhaps overwhelmed by the parade of disparate ideas he's forced to juggle, winds up leaving a pile of untied loose ends and frustratingly forgotten notions. And that, not the clever scientific conversations or random thrill, is what audiences will ultimately remember about this updated "Andromeda," a miniseries that winds up as less than the sum of its parts.
Oh, and the virus being able to think? That's just stupid.
Universal brings "The Andromeda Strain" in a slick two-disc package bound to satisfy the few fans the miniseries has earned. The discs are housed in a single-wide keepcase with a hinged tray for the second disc; this fits into a glossy cardboard slipcover with an attractive fold-out cover showcasing the cast (and the show's hideous tagline: "It's a bad day to be human").
Video & Audio
Presented in its original 1.78:1 widescreen format (with anamorphic enhancement), "Andromeda" looks fantastic in this crisp, rich transfer. With Universal Pictures and Ridley and Tony Scott's production houses backing A&E in making the miniseries, this is one expensive TV project, and it shows in excellent production design and sharp cinematography (courtesy TV vet Jon Joffin). Unfortunately, the vivid picture also shows off the crumminess of the program's occasional chintzy special effects work. (They could make the sets look great but couldn't get birds to look convincing?)
Upgraded from its original cable broadcast, the soundtrack booms in Dolby 5.1. The mix is solid and clear, spread nicely around all speakers. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided.
Director Mikael Salomon, executive producers David W. Zucker and Tom Thayer, and editor Scott Vickrey share commentary duties, explaining their story choices and detailing technical issues.
"Terra Incognita: Making The Andromeda Strain" (26:05) offers the usual cast and crew interviews as well as an unexpected depth involving the evolution of the project, from thoughts on remaking a classic to putting together the set design to the hassles of green screen filmmaking. Presented in anamorphic widescreen.
A click-through gallery offers 110 (!) production photos and design sketches.
Finally, a collection of previews (in 1.33:1 full frame and flat letterbox) for other Universal releases is included on Disc One, and another batch of previews plays as the disc loads; there are no previews on Disc Two.
If you liked the miniseries, then yes, you will like this DVD set, which offers quality presentation and solid extras. But if you missed the program when it first aired, you'll do fine to simply Rent It - and keep a heavy thumb on the fast-forward button.