The Andromeda Strain (2008)
I always cringe when I hear the phrase re-imagining. It's yet another contrived expression created by marketing bodies to justify the somewhat arbitrary process of remaking an established title. Often the re-imagined product has little to do with the source material and was chosen simply because of brand awareness. If you want a textbook example of a recent example of this somewhat cynical process then look no further than last year’s Death Wish reboot. It had nothing new to say on the subject and simply trotted out a generic and bland revenge thriller. So, when I discovered that Robert Wise's classic science fiction film, The Andromeda Strain had been remade as a TV miniseries (that had completely passed me by), I had great reservations as to whether this would be worth watching. However, the involvement of Tony and Ridley Scott piqued my interest, so I decided to take a calculated risk and give this 2008 A&E Network production a go.
This new version stays fairly true to basic premise of Michael Crichton’s novel, with a satellite returning to earth bringing with it a mystery virus of possible extraterrestrial origin. The small town of Piedmont soon falls victim to the contagion, leaving only two survivors, an alcoholic and a baby. The "wildfire" team of scientists are brought in by the government to tackle the outbreak and find a potential cure. There work is hampered by the virus’s ability to mutate to find new ways of spreading. The writer, Robert Schenkkan, has also added new elements that reflect contemporary culture and politics. The question of the virus' origin is intriguing and of course there are factions within the government who are not to be trusted. There is also a journalist seeking to expose the ongoing conspiracies. It is all somewhat generic but it is not a lazy as it sounds. Due to the credentials of those involved in the production, it offers a little more tension and drama than one expects from such miniseries.
The cast is robust, featuring Benjamin Bratt (Law & Order, Love in a time of Cholera), Rick Schroder (24, NYPD Blue), Eric McCormack (Will &Grace), Daniel Dae Kim (Lost) and Andre Braugher (City of Angels). Performances are okay given the inevitable formula of the vehicle. There are a lot more characters in this adaptation, given the need to expand the story over two episodes. Hence there are times when cast members come and go simply to facilitate moving the story forward. Production values are adequate with the confines of the budget, with creative set designs and interesting use of locations. The action is quite hard for a television miniseries, though some of these scenes do seem a little tonally out of place. Perhaps the director Mikael Salomon (who has been involved with several miniseries such as Rome, Salem’s Lot and Band of Brothers) feared making an excessively narrative driven drama, like the original feature film, so felt obliged to overstate certain plot elements to keep the interest of easily bored viewers. Admittedly by the end, there is a decline into cliché and several events that were obviously telegraphed earlier in the proceedings inevitably occur.
Those who have seen the 1970 feature film may well see this new version as somewhat intellectually diluted. Personally, I think one has to bear in mind historical context. The seventies were a time when the cinematic audience was more sophisticated and willing to invest in stories that made them think for themselves. The new version simply reflects what “sells” with today’s viewers and although there is more focus upon action, this adaptation still tries to keep the underlying science of story front and centre. All things considered The Andromeda Strain is better than expected. Given the nature of the system that made it, this actually exceeded my expectations, which I must admit were initially very low. It offers a different perspective on the source material and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Its two-part format is an appropriate length and is able to sustain the story. As ever with such productions some of the CGI is a little cheap and I’m not a fan of blood spatter added in post-production. Overall this is adequate entertainment. If you want something weightier then by all means watch the original, but this version fills a niche.