Science-fiction movies have a few rules they generally must adhere to in order to be considered “science” fiction. First, they must revolve around a science, whether that’s physics, astronomy, biology, quantuum mechanics, geology or any of a multitude of fields of study. Really good science fiction includes more than one of the sciences. Second, they have to stretch the currently accepted “absolutes” and propose ideas that, though unproven, allow you to believe in new concepts that might be possible. It’s not as easy to do as it sounds. Consider that we currently take for granted so many things that people thought wildly impossible only fifty years ago. Communications lasers, biological warfare, weapons satellites, DNA mapping, space stations, microscopic memory chips, bionic implants and nanotechnology to name only a few. Science fiction stories introduce new theories that, though implausible by today’s standards, inspire a belief that it might just be possible.
The original Andromeda Strain motion picture was based on the original novel by Michael Crichton and contained elements of both science fiction and thrilling suspense. The entire movie starring Arthur Hill, David Wayne, Kate Reid and James Olson as four scientists sequestered in a high tech, top-secret, underground medical facility trying to identify and stop a deadly pathogen of unknown origin, code-named Andromeda, from a satellite that crashes near a small town in rural Utah, played upon many of the fears that were prevalant in America in 1971. Most of the drama took place, almost exclusively, in the claustrophobic surroundings of the futuristic lab that looked, suspiciously, like the inside of the Discovery spacecraft from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Originally the Sci-Fi channel announced that it had taken on the task of producing the remake. However, Universal Studios Home Entertainment, has teamed up with the Scott brothers, Ridley and Tony, the team behind the successful Numb3rs television series to produce a fouir hour miniseries, presented on A&E in two parts and soon to be released on DVD. Along with fellow producers David Zucker and Tom Thayer director Mikael Salomon, the mastermind behind films like The Abyss, Backdraft and Far and Away, and writer Robert Schenkkan have taken Michael Crichton’s story and crafted a refreshingly different tale. The original film, brilliant though it was, left so many questions unanswered. Where did the Andromeda contagion actually originate? Was it, in fact, alien? What was the true purpose behind the satellite on which it had been brought back to earth? Why would the government want to keep the incident so quiet? All loose ends that Schenkkan attempts to neatly tie up.
The miniseries starts in much the same way as the original movie, with a satellite crash landing outside the rural town of Piedmont, Utah. Two young people see the crash, discover the grounded wreckage and take it back to town. The local “elders,” consisting of the fire chief, local doctor and a couple of others, including the town drunk, discuss what to do. The action then shifts to a military crew searching for the same satellite using a GPS tracking unit. When they drive into town they find nothing but bodies littering the streets. Their humvee is stopped by the town drunk waving his arms and gibbering incoherently. Before either soldier can figure out what’s happening they are stricken by the deadly contagion and die, almost instantaneously. Their whereabouts and progress have been monitored by their commanders and the news of a possible threat, terrorist or worse, begins travelling up the chain, all the way to the White House.
The first of the medical team to be introduced is the creator and head of Project Wildfire, a super secret protocol that includes procedures and an underground laboratory in the Nevada desert in the event of a high-level biological threat, Dr. Jeremy Stone (Benjamin Bratt). Also introduced, one at a time, are Dr. Angela Noyce (Christa Miller), Dr. Tsi Chou (Daniel Dae Kim), Dr. Charlene Barton (Viola Davis) and Major Bill Keane, MD (Ricky Schroder). It’s immediately apparent that Doctors Stone and Noyce have some kind of history together. Dr. Stone admits to Noyce, while they enjoy a private ride on a commandeered jumbo jetliner, that his marriage is failing and he’s losing touch with his unruly, teenage son. When Dr. Barton is picked up at her home she tells her husband, “If I call and ask you how your mother is doing take the kids and get on a plane. Fly west and get as much distance, as you possibly can, between you and the continental U.S.”
At this point in the miniseries we are then introduced to several new characters who cause the story to quickly diverge from the original plotline. These include reporter Jack Nash (Eric McCormack), who gets a mysterious phone call from a source who intercepted the video feed showing the death of the military unit in Piedmont and sneaks out of rehab, along with General George Mancheck (Andre Braugher) and President Scott (Ted Whittall).
Once all of the doctors have converged with General Mancheck for a briefing at a military airbase they suit up in bio-hazard gear and begin their investigation of Piedmont. Nash checks himself out of rehab, against the wishes of his editor, and quickly proves that he’s got a personal grudge with General Mancheck and wants to use the situation to discredit him. President Scott, not wanting to lose ground in an election year, calls in several branches of military to quarantine Piedmont and completely isolate the area from the public and the media. An act which, thanks to Nash, quickly backfires with disastrous consequences.
By the time the two lone survivors of doomed Piedmont are discovered, an infant and the elderly town drunk, story lines begin to emerge that quickly add depth to the simple plotline from the original movie. It’s obvious, right away, that the technology in the underground laboratory has been updated with things like a computer system that accepts voice commands, fully automated medical testing equipment and a whole host of security measures to ensure that Project Wildfire can’t get out of control and infect the outside world. Of course, the nuclear plant beneath the facility, designed to go critical and incinerate the entire facility in the event of a breach, is still there along with the “odd man override” to prevent an accidental detonation. Though, expect some unusually modern twists on even that basic premise.
Also a part of the miniseries is a new layer of mystery surrounding the origins of the Andromeda pathogen and, eventually, whether or not it’s possible to cure it or, at the very least, prevent it from spreading beyond Piedmont, Utah. Both the Andromeda Strain and the characters trying to stop it prove to be far more complex than the original story Crichton envisioned. Production values are quite high when it comes to the laboratory and dramatic elements. However, some of the computer generated graphics do end up appearing almost as awkward as the talented, but poorly cast, Christa Miller and Rick Schroder. Never fear, because stellar performances by the likes of Viola Davis and Andre Braugher make up the difference and help draw the viewer in.
For diehard fans of the original movie there are many ingredients that, without a genuine desire to drop the biases and enjoy the ride, will guarantee disappointment. However, for those looking for a chance to spend four hours immersed in a dramatic battle against impossible odds, along with some seriously intense conspiracies, larger than life dangers and complex science theories, this made for TV miniseries won’t let you down. Just make sure you’ve had all your shots.
The DVD, due out on June 3rd, will include more than 4 hours of Bonus Features, including a full-length featurette, Terra Incognita: The Making of The Andromeda Strain, visual effects breakdowns, a photo & design gallery and audio commentary with the director, producers Zucker and Thayer and editor Scott Vickrey (Nightmares and Dreamscapes: From The Stories of Stephen King).
Mikael Salomon (director) / Michael Crichton (novel), Robert Schenkkan (writer)
CAST: Benjamin Bratt … Dr. Jeremy Stone
Nicola Anderson … Lt. Deacon
Magda Apanowicz … Suzie Travis
Ted Atherton … Ed Dewitt
Andre Braugher … General George Mancheck
Daniel Dae Kim … Dr. Tsi Chou
Eric McCormack … Jack Nash
Christa Miller … Dr. Angela Noyce
Jonathan Potts … Pat Terrence
Rick Schroder … Major Bill Keane MD