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Like most genre filmmaking today, Science Fiction efforts have a difficult time trying to please a broad demographic of viewers. The new two-part miniseries of The Andromeda Strain takes Michael Crichton's original story idea, itself a clever technology-intensive reworking of older 1950s Sci-Fi concepts, and Goes Committee on it. Crichton's tale of a deadly alien virus brought to earth by a space probe just isn't good enough; like the the proverbial mouse overdesigned into an elephant, it's been put on narrative steroids to compete with other action movies afflicted with ADD/ADHD. So many added layers of jeopardy and disaster are shoveled into this story that no script could possibly support them all. With a cast that must react to yet another apocalyptic threat percolating to the surface every five minutes, this new Andromeda Strain becomes an exercise in excess.
Ex- cinematographer Mikael Salomon (The Abyss) keeps the action hot and the comic-book dialogue at a constant boil. The movie is marred by some pretty weak CGI effects, but is otherwise slickly produced and reasonably diverting.
So much incident has been jammed into the miniseries of The Andromeda Strain that for awhile we think we're seeing a Science Fiction version of that cartoon where Daffy Duck sells a Hollywood producer on a movie story by enthusiastically stacking up cataclysmic plot complications: "And then the DAM BROKE!" Actor / screenwriter Robert Schenkkan (Spartacus 2004) races through three hours of panicked exposition and silly military-speak that doesn't allow its characters to become anything more than hurriedly sketched types. My favorite snappy command, to a squadron of helicopters, is "Spread out and disperse!"
The original 1971 Robert Wise version did its best to emphasize technological virtuosity, and ran the risk of dullness. Its team of super-doctors spend over half the movie just going through procedurals to enter the super-sterile Wildfire lab. After a lot of talk they discover that the virus has mutated into a harmless form. Critics have chided Crichton for tacking on a cheesy ending involving a life & death race against a ticking nuclear bomb; think of this remake as being three hours of similar gimmicky plotting.
This new miniseries has so little faith in its source material that it drags in a hairy plot complication every six minutes or so, many of them raiding the original content of previous Sci-Fi pix. Dr. Stone and Wildfire team member Dr. Angela Noyce (Christa Miller) had a fling a few seasons back, just like the scientists of This Island Earth. The studly President (Ted Whittall, who sounds like Dan Ackroyd doing Jimmy Carter) knows his wife is in danger in Los Angeles, as in Independence Day. Some victims of Andromeda become killing maniacs, referencing any number of contagion-Zombie pix. Bunnies, rats, snakes and hawks inadvertently advance the alien infection, in scenes similar to Beast With A Million Eyes. Infected birds attack National Guard troops, just like a certain Hitchcock movie -- although what kills the troops is apparently 'clouds' of the Andromeda strain accompanying the feathered flocks. A nuclear blast that kicks Andromeda into its happy mutatin' spree comes from the book and first movie, but is also much like an incident in Kronos.
The movie never decides what kind of picture it is. We're given unusually ineffective gore effects when a person burns alive and a man cuts off his own head with a chainsaw (A good act, but I can do it only once!). Then the movie turns into a full-scale paranoid "the government is an evil conspiracy" tale with evil White House mucky-mucks suppressing important news, imposing a communications blackout on the Wildfire Lab, murdering newsmen and honest Pentagon staffers and detaining one newsman with threats of Guantanamo torture. A nasty White House politico blackmails one of the scientists into preserving a sample of Andromeda for use as a potential weapon, a la Alien and Aliens.
As in the original, a science team member turns out to be an epileptic. Instead of making a case against medical discrimination, the researcher's seizure is used in the big finale as just another stall tactic. The gung-ho military staffer is revealed as gay, just to add yet another meaningless / meaningful detail.
The science on view is a joke. The show could easily be titled Andromeda C.S.I, as all the scientists sole activity is to offer an unbroken stream of brilliant, infallible analysis. Nobody seems to do any actual work; they instead consult hi-tech information screens that magically deliver beautiful graphic representations of expository information suitable for teaching Kindergartners. It appears that the contagion isn't from outer space, but was sent through a time-space wormhole (somebody tell Lisa Simpson). A future society has sent the contagion back in time in the hope that we can destroy it -- shades of the clever 50s cheapie Terror from the Year 5000. The future scientists can biologically encode text messages in the microstructure of Andromeda's organic casing, but they need us to genetically engineer an antibiotic antidote for Andromeda. With nobody doing any work, the Wildfire lab needs only a few hours to turn a few samples of hardy bacteria (?) from sub-aquatic volcanoes into thousands of gallons of anti-Andromeda pesticide!
The Andromeda Strain miniseries is packed with difficult effects challenges. Some are handled quite well, as in the movie's constant parade of visual readouts, giant screen info and interesting lab equipment. Conveniently for Wildfire, every incident in the movie is instantly accessible in full-color video. Most of the animals, the birds, the fire, explosions, etc., fare less well. The most risible scenes unfortunately involve CGI effects. In the tradition of heroes who can outrun machine gun bullets, explosions, tidal waves and lava, reporter Nash and a cute young thing he's picked up on the range outrace a wave of Andromeda that sweeps across the landscape like a red shadow. As if commenting on the true value of the movie, a rat bites an unlucky camper who drops his drawers to make like the proverbial Bear in the Woods. Ouch!
Perhaps indicating a hidden desire to parody itself, Andromeda has a scene where a man must throw a human thumb fifty feet up a dangerous vertical airshaft (don't ask). A close-up of the severed digit tumbling in slow motion recalls the shot of the ape-tossed bone in 2001: A Space Odyssey! Cynical in its politics and juvenile in almost every respect, The Andromeda Strain is best suited to the cable genre of Sci-Fi Channel hype and hysteria. It was fun! But approach with caution.
Universal's DVD of The Andromeda Strain looks fine in a good enhanced transfer, even when it's being silly. A commentary is provided by director Salomon, producers David Zucker & Tom Thayer, and editor Scott Vickrey. None of them advance the notion that they have a classic. A Visual Effects Breakdown extra shows us the obvious CGI scenes but also many more that aren't as apparent, and a Photo Design Gallery shows off the film's substantial design work.
The two-disc set was on the street just a few days after The Andromeda Strain's television debut. Universal Home Video marketers are surely running the data through computers, to see how that maneuver performs, profitability-wise.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Andromeda Strain rates:
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