The problem with remaking science fiction movies is that science and fiction have both moved forward along with the rest of the world. As such, The Andromeda Strain may have been intense and frightening in the late 1960s. However, that story today? We’ve seen Outbreak.
Which is all a way of saying that I understand needing to update a story for the times, especially after nearly 40 years. But there is a moment when you’ve added too much and you need to edit it back. The Andromeda Strains biggest failure is that it lacked this imperative editorial eye. Or maybe it was poked out during stage 1 psychosis. I can’t be sure.
Before you go psychotic on me, be aware that there are some spoilers ahead as I compare the original book and this new update.
Most of the characters have received a hefty retooling in A&E’s mini-series event. Only Dr. Stone, portrayed by the solemn faced Benjamin Bratt, and General Mancheck, played equally flat by Andre Braugher, remain largely untouched. I can only imagine the other characters were reworked in order to attract a broad audience through politically correct casting. As such, the cast is rounded out by Christa Miller unevenly playing Dr. Angela Noyce, Daniel Dae Kim as the compelling Dr. Tsi Chou, Viola Davis as the sometimes overwrought Dr. Charlene Barton, Ricky Schroder shoehorned into an inconsistently written Major Bill Keene, M.D. and Eric McCormack as the sly and resourceful addict and TV news reporter, Jack Nash. The one whose boss has a direct line to the Director of the NSA, according to the tale woven on screen.
The original Andromeda featured a satellite probe that searches the upper most reaches of our atmosphere for new germs to use in the creation of bio-warfare, but in this version they changed that around. Which is a shame, because it’s one of the few areas of the original story that aged well. Instead, Andromeda comes to earth via a wormhole that suddenly appears, drops it off in a self contained "bucky ball" of extreme nano-tech and promptly closes again. Which is when it impacts the satellite that eventually crash lands on earth. This plot device seriously damages the fact that the the disease doesn’t spread until after the satellite’s containment unit was opened, yet the viral agent was found on it’s exterior.
In the original, much of the thrust of the mystery of how Andromeda could be stopped was wrapped up in how a sterno drinking old man and an infant survived. In this version, it’s steeped in the nano-tech, which is encoded with alternating elements to create a substitute binary language which is further encoded in hexadecimal to reveal the name of a bacterium that can beat Andromeda but is extinct on the future earth that dropped it through the wormhole. Which all begs the question, why not send back a video of what happened to future earth rather then sending back the thing that caused it in the first place along with an encrypted message? Why keep the sterno drinker and baby around at all, at that point? Granted, it allows someone to utter the entirely too amusingly outdated phrases "Squeeze" and "Pink Lady", but is that really enough of a justification?
If that were the full extent of Andromeda’s problems, it could be forgiven for the entertainment value of flashy sci-fi. But, alas, too many other elements were tossed into the mix. Without going into all the details, here’s a quick and dirty list of several of the other story elements: A president seeking re-election, campaign finance scandals, deep sea strip mining, homeland security , terrorist attacks, high level conspiracies to do everything from silence the media to sample Andromeda, illegal wire tapping, homosexuality in military service, the ban on nuclear testing, radical environmental activists, nuclear detonations and Hitchcockian birds. It’s all just too much. And most of it could have easily been edited out and resulted in a stronger core story.
But the most egregious error for me was what they did to the Andromeda Strain itself. The original story was partly terrifying because it was viral. An unseeing, unknowing, unfeeling killing agent that isn’t even aware it’s killing. The new Andromeda is sentient, attacking intelligently, communicating with its disparate parts and adapting faster then the Borg on a good day. It’s an engineered weapon, out of control. It’s the flu as Skynet. And it’s so far past the scope of reality that it moves directly into dull tinged with slightly amusing. And not even the A-list actors, the hefty budget, or driving score can save it from that.
In the end, it’s a story that should have been better. But in trying too hard to be current and edgy, it lost all sight of creating a heart of intelligently written characters and central plot, limited and sensible subplots and purposefully directed actors. And so, we are left with this meandering mini-series, over-reaching and underachieving, with pretty packaging and not much else. It’s with a heavy heart that I give it a detached and downward facing thumb.