The Andromeda Strain (2008) Review
There is a key lesson to the be learned from the 1971 version of The Andromeda Strain. And that is not to be confused into thinking that a film is a particularly great one on account of it being very slow. It's a fine film, make no mistake about it but not a great one even though, for many years, I confused it's funereal pace and uncluttered locations for being an out-and-out classic. Indeed, it took my finding out that Michael Crichton was behind The Andromeda Strain to see, in something of a Paulian conversion, that it wasn't quite the film I had imagined it to be. And Phase IV...that's another one that takes a long time to say not very much more than, "Watch out for them ants!"
This new version of The Andromeda Strain follows the Crichton novel rather well but in fearing that today's audiences will struggle to sit through two hours of boffins performing experiments on a microscopic organism, producers Ridley and Tony Scott have force-fed Crichton's story all manner of crises and conspiracies in the hope of making it a lot more exciting. Unfortunately, this actually leaves it looking rather silly. As before, a satellite unexpectedly falls to Earth near the small town of Piedmont. The recovery team sent to retrieve the satellite find that it has already been moved, taken, most likely, to Piedmont in the back of a pickup truck. On arriving in Piedmont, they find that the town is littered with corpses. Everyone who has come into contact with the satellite appears to have died suddenly and violently. Within minutes, the recovery team have also died, one of them so quickly as to not even make it out of his Humvee.
Within hours, General George Mancheck (Andre Braugher) has called the five scientists who make up the top secret Wildfire team into service. Led by Dr Jeremy Stone (Benjamin Bratt), Dr Angela Noyce (Christa Miller), Dr Tsi Chou (Daniel Dae Kim), Major Bill Keane MD (Rick Schroder) and Dr Charlene Barton (Magda Apanowicz) travel to Piedmont and find two survivors, a crying infant and a old man who was witness to the horror. A study of the dead reveals the cause of death as a rapid and extensive clotting of the blood, sufficient as to turn it to powder. No one knows why these two alone were spared. In the town garage, they find the satellite, including what appears to be a strange black stain, possibly organic, underneath the outer shell. Taking this satellite back to their laboratory, they isolate an organism that they name Andomeda but all their efforts to destroy it come to nothing. Andomeda is resistant to everything in the scientists' arsenal, even positively thriving on radiation. As Andromeda continues to evolve and to spread across the state of Utah and the military move closer to a nuclear strike on Piedmont, these scientists must unravel Andromeda and discover a means to stop its spread. When all seems lost, will a most unlikely solution present itself?
Of course it will. Without giving very much away, given how this version of The Andromeda Strain is playing this weekend on Sky, this does a Max Power paint'n'polish job on The Andromeda Strain. It thus gives the impression to the viewer that very much more is happening than actually is with Ridley and Tony Scott pointing director Mikael Salomon in the direction of a nuclear reactor, of a self-destruct mechanism that, as sure as night follows day, will be activated at some point and to the psychosis suffered by the ground troops as Andromeda spreads. Wormholes, government conspiracies, the hijacking of an offshore drilling rig, time travel and military black ops all make their way into The Andromeda Strain and, by its end, it's hard to remember just what was relevant and what wasn't. Indeed, there was so much talk of our future selves sending Andromeda back to us through time that even I seemed to believe it possible...in spite of this being the craziest idea that anyone might ever have. Send a near-unstoppable and very fatal organism back through time to a more scientifically-backwards era in the hope of teaching them a lesson? Wouldn't a DVD from the future have sufficed. A 5¼" floppy disc and a TRS-80 Model 4 to read it on? A message written on a piece of paper? A crazier idea even than reforming The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown and sending them back through time to the months before the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 in the hope of saving the girls from trial.
The problem with The Andromeda Strain is not dissimilar to that faced by Dean Koontz in writing Phantoms. The sight of a town that is all but deserted and in which corpses litter the ground is an arresting one. I Am Legend also faced this problem recently and, like The Andromeda Strain, never managed to sustain its early atmosphere when revealing the horrors in the darkness. With The Andromeda Strain, we are witness to something that takes mere seconds to kill people. Those that it doesn't kill are driven insane, such as the war veteran who, via CCTV footage, decapitates himself with a chainsaw. Like the T-Virus/G-Virus in Resident Evil, this organism can infect rabbits, birds and dogs so while the troops are containing what people they can within an exclusion zone, the wildlife carry it through regardless. Eventually, though, Andromeda mutates to such a degree that it no longer needs any creature to act as a carrier but, instead, simply moves via the fauna and flora, cutting a swathe across whole mountain ranges as it travels west. As the audience, we're treated to much CG brown-ery, as the producers find a way to highlight the spread of the organism. Gorse bushes turning a deep shade of ochre, in spite of people running away from it, are not as frightening as people dropping dead in the street.
The problem with this style of storytelling is that, generally speaking, nothing that Crichton can come up in their stories and plausibly explain is as frightening as seeing once healthy people drop to the ground, who then claw at their skin as their blood turns to powder. With The Andromeda Strain, this viewer has always felt it would have been better to have been the precursor to an I Am Legend/Dawn Of The Dead-type story in that it was the beginning of a plague that would almost entirely destroy the human population. However, Crichton strives for a happy ending and it's really only a matter of time before the scientists figure out a way to beat Andromeda. What element of fear there is in the story dissipates as swiftly as a drop of dye in water. The Andromeda Strain then becomes a race against time. Scientists beaver away in their laboratory, a reporter encamped with the military near Piedmont struggles to get his story out before some shadowy government forces silence him for good and the President of the United States (Ted Whittall) gets to look worried and say things like, "Are you a man of faith...then pray!" while casting an eye westwards where his wife, in a subplot inspired by Independence Day, is in danger from the mutating Andromeda that is being carried on the wind and in the water.
Add to this the crisis over hostage taking on a vent-mining platform, not to mention the vent-mining itself, and the overriding feeling is of the producers simply throwing as much as they possibly can at the drama in the hope that nobody notices that The Andromeda Strain really is about scientists carrying out experiments on a microscopic organism. Near the end, it gets very silly indeed with - wouldn't you know! - the self-destruct sequence being activated, of a panic within the labs and of biblical plagues threatening all of mankind. Only that, given the limited budget, mankind doesn't seem particularly concerned over the coming apocalypse. No riots in the streets, no queues at petrol stations or supermarkets and not even a letter to one's MP. The producers would have been very much better had they just acknowledged that The Andromeda Strain is all about the science and simply stuck with the boffins. What they would have sacrificed in excitement they would have more than made up in atmosphere.
Universal have done a perfectly acceptable job with this DVD release. Rather than trying to cram both episodes onto a single disc, they've split the content over two discs. However, The Andromeda Strain never looks anything other than made-for-television with this DVD, particularly with it being set, for the most part, in a laboratory, looking more like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation than anything else. The quality of the transfer is fine, having only a slight softness to it but also showing up some very obvious CG effects. The DD5.1 audio track is much the same. It could have been very much better, particularly in the early part of the drama when more could have been done to accentuate the eeriness of Piedmont but the miniseries has plenty of these missed opportunities. Too often it resorts to a very plain-sounding audio track without any of the effects that a DD5.1 would have offered. Finally, there are no subtitles.
Commentary: Alongside director Mikael Salomon and editor Scott Vickrey, there are a couple of executive producers, David W Zucker and Tom Thayer, all of whom are there for the entirety. For the most part, it's reasonably interesting. The contributors are fully aware that they were working from the Michael Crichton novel and the Robert Wise film and don't, therefore, make any claims as to how original their film is. What they do well, though, is to explain the production of their own film, what they added to make it the length of a miniseries and what was particular to their shoot. Some of it is very technical at times, never more so than when discussing the minutiae of the depth of focus in a digital shoot or when the cost of camera hire is questioned but it's very descriptive on a scene-by-scene basis. The four also get on very well, so much so that I only wish there was more of a sense of humour about it. But I'm guessing that it's hard to be funny when you're thinking about the end of the world.
Making The Andromeda Strain (26m07s): Having already listened to the commentary, I'm not entirely sure that there's any point in watching this documentary other than hoping that Ridley Scott might appear. And so he does but only for a minute or thereabouts to explain why Scott Free chose The Andromeda Strain as a production for television. Otherwise, this is a very typical making-of, even to including contributions on the locations used in the shoot, from the costume designer and from the special effects team. Finally, there are some clips from the 1971 version of the film, which, though used to illustrate how dated it was, actually shows how funky the post-sixties set design was and how, in comparison, this version looks quite drab.
Visual Effects Breakdown (15m39s): Without any narration or onscreen discussion of the effects, this montage is a simple demonstration of the before-and-after versions of effects shots.
Finally, there is also a Gallery of 110 photos, none of which are particularly interesting. But it is worth flicking through to the end to see Andre Braugher do some sterling finger pointing as though auditioning for the military uniforms pages of the Freeman's catalogue.