Last Sunday night A&E unveiled (with much fanfare) the first of a new two-part television event, The Andromeda Strain, presented as an updated version of the story written by Michael Crichton. As I stated in a post on this topic prior to the airing of this program, the 1971 film version of this story was very well done, and in my view it holds up over thirty years later. Given my appreciation for the earlier movie, and that Ridley Scott had some involvement with this new project, I looked forward to A&E’s program like a dog salivating for a treat from its owner. With this post I’ll share a few thoughts on how my anticipation compared to my post-viewing reflections.
For those unfamiliar with Crichton’s book or the 1971 film version of the story, the plotline involves a satellite that has returned from space and crash lands in a small desert town. When a government team goes to retrieve the satellite they discover that something connected with it has resulted in the death of almost everyone in the town, and it quickly kills the military retrieval team as well. This results in the government’s mobilization of a scientific team who are sent to an underground lab where they discover that an extraterrestrial organism came back on the satellite, and eventually the safety of all humanity is threatened. The film version of the story unfolds like a combined CSI science-detective drama, coupled with an environmental apocalyptic thriller. It was well directed (by Robert Wise) and acted, and it should be on the list of all science fiction fans interested in including a little thought with their enjoyment of speculative fiction.
Setting the film version aside and taking the new television treatment of Crichton’s thriller on its own terms, how well was it done? In my view extremely poorly. I believe the major problem with the television program was its incredible “busyness,” that detracted from the main aspect of the story. Apparently the possibility of the global death of humanity by an extraterrestrial organism was not considered intriguing enough to serve as the main thrust of the two-night television event. I recognize that with the expansion of the depiction of the story from a film to a two-night, four hour television miniseries, and with an attempt to update the material to reflect contemporary issues, that new materials need to be inserted. But so many new elements were added that they seemed to detract from the movement and suspense of the story. In addition, some of the elements seemed almost trivial and gratuitous, as if the screenplay writers felt they had to include certain elements to reflect our contemporary social circumstances and anxities no matter how briefly they were treated, or whether they contributed to the overall storyline.
For example, we are introduced early on in the first installment to the marital and family problems of Dr. Jeremy Stone, the lead scientist who heads up the scientific team. We see the psychological problems of his soon to be ex-wife, and his tense relationship with his teenage son. This story element is picked up again briefly in a couple of scenes, but it is never treated sufficiently so as to connect with the overall story, and as a result it seemed disconnected and thereby a distraction from the thrust of the story.
Another aspect I could have done without involved a story arc surrounding a substance abusing reporter embedded with the military forces surrounding the infected town. He becomes involved in an attempted government cover-up (connected to present anxieties over Homeland Security abuses of power) and survives two assassination attempts, only to survive in the end and meet a girl in the dessert that he walks away with as his shirtless chest shines in the hot desert sun. I appreciate that since the film version the media has taken on greater significance in our lives, and our distrust of the government has taken on new proportions as well, but once again, the way these elements were handled distracted from the main thrust of the story in terms of the possibility of worldwide human destruction through an organism from space.
Beyond this the television miniseries just couldn’t resist connecting the source of the contagion to present environmental concerns. I’m all for addressing contemporary issues through science fiction, but this could have been addressed a little more creatively and subtly in my view. I almost expected Al Gore to make a cameo in connection with this aspect of the series.
From time to time Hollywood produces great pieces of cinema that then become classics. In my view most of these should be left alone. Why try to redo an icon, unless you can revision it in fresh and entertaining ways that help the new version stand up through the inevitable comparison that will come? Despite the risks, this has not stopped people from trying. Remember the very talented Tim Burton’s failed attempts at revisioning The Planet of the Apes. I thought the bar was set very high with The Andromeda Strain film, but perhaps producers thought there was a lack of broad familiarity with the film, and that the subject matter could be presented in dramatic ways through the assistance of folks like Ridley Scott. They took a gamble, and in my view they lost. They had a great story, and an accomplished director of science fiction films as producer, but they couldn’t executive properly enough to produce an entertaining product. I came away from my two-night investment of time feeling like I’d been cheated. I’d give A&E’s The Andromeda Strain one star out of four. Better to have left this one alone. If you really want to see Crichton’s story presented effectively, go to your closest video store and rent the film.