Originally commissioned by the Sci-Fi Channel but then bumped up to A&E as a “television event,” the new version of THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, based on Michael Crichton’s bestseller, will be broadcast over two nights this Memorial Day weekend. I have fond memories of Robert Wise’s film version, which I first saw in the theater in 1971. Wise was a master of using space. In films such as THE SOUND OF MUSIC, WEST SIDE STORY and STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE his camera revealed a world of wide vistas and soaring grandeur. However, he could go the other way as well and confine us in a frame that was extremely insular and claustrophobic. Watching films such as RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP and THE HAUNTING this unseen side of the frame helped him create a unrelenting sense of menace. His version of THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN contained both. The film begins with high angle wide screen views of the infected town and then confines us with the characters inside the underground Wildfire facility for the rest of the film. The climax of the film, in the access core – with the hero desperately trying to reach the next level while being sniped at by automated lasers as the computer counts down toward nuclear annihilation – is a great piece of edge of your seat suspense.
Wise’s film was a thriller with some science fiction overtones; the idea of a deadly plague from outer space was strictly the device that moved the action along. The tele-film has much stronger science fiction and horror elements than the original. Instead of just being confined to an isolated laboratory the alien plague is spreading out of its original site and threatens the entire world. And it can learn and communicate, making it almost impossible to eradicate.
With a three plus hours running time, the remake’s director Mikael Salomon and screenwriter Robert Schenkkan have a much broader canvas which they use to tell multiple parallel stories. The basic plot is still the same – a satellite from Project Scoop crashes near a small town in the southern Utah desert where it kills every inhabitant except for a raving drunk and a crying baby.
A team of experts are assembled to determine what it is and how to defend the world against it. As in the earlier version they are sequestered in an underground facility known as Wildfire. Unfortunately, at this point the subplots begin to pile up – an unpopular President is running for re election, the General in charge is desperately trying to cover the whole thing up, a relentless investigative reporter is tracking down the facts, government agents are hot on his trail and so on and so on.
Saloman tries to up the ante with good looking effects and lots of action, but unfortunately, there is no real suspense and very little claustrophobia. However, the cast is uniformly good especially Andre Braugher (THE MIST), Daniel Dae Kim (LOST) and Viola Davis. Other capable actors including leads Benjamin Bratt, Christa Miller and Eric McCormick try valiantly to bring their thinly defined characters to life.
There are actually some interesting and intriguing ideas here but they tend to get lost in the morass of confusing subplots. I was startled by a few things in the film including a first for me, the sight of a character deliberately decapitating himself with a chainsaw.
In conclusion, The Andromeda Strain is worth a look, though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend wasting the holiday weekend viewing it; wait for the DVD instead.
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (A&E mini-series, 2008). Directed by Mikael Salomon. Teleplay by Robert Schenkkan, based on the novel by Michael Cricthon. Cast: Benjamin Bratt, Nicola Anderson, Magda Apanowicz, Ted Atherton, Daniel Bacon, Jacob Blair, Chris Bradford, Andre Braugher, Rich Schroder.