In general, I’m trying to keep a positive tone to this blog, promoting things I’m enjoying—and there are a lot of them. Occasionally, however, I feel the need to discuss something that has offended my sensibilities (whether to warn you away from them, or perhaps simply as personal therapy), which brings me to A&E’s adaptation of Michael Chrichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, which started his career as best-selling author.
I read the novel in high school, enjoyed it quite a lot, and found the 1971 movie entertaining as well. Both deal primarily with a scientific team investigating a killer microorganism—apparently extraterrestrial—in a secure underground facility. When the microorganism unexpectedly mutates, becoming harmless to humans, but deadly to neoprene door seals, a race begins to see whether the team will be able to override the security system before it incinerates them all by exploding the nuclear reactor that powers the facility. Tense stuff, with just the right amount of science, bureaucracy, and human personality to make for lively reading or viewing.
My old friend Loren Wiseman used to tell me that in a sci-fi tale, an author can get away with one “gimme”—an idea that stretches the realms of possibility past their reasonable bounds. In these two versions of The Andromeda Strain, that “gimme” is the existence of an extraterrestrial bug that continually mutates.
The trouble with the A&E version is that it goes “gimme,” “gimme,” “gimme,” piling one impossibility atop another. It starts with the same bug, then lets it feed on radiation (ignoring the heat of the thermonuclear blast, of course). The microorganism can even reach up to somehow crash a fighter plane carrying a nuclear warhead—and trigger that warhead’s control! Yes, the bug is somehow intelligent. And it’s capable of communicating with pieces of itself across great distances, so that when you find something to kill one sample, the rest of it adapts. Did I mention it was delivered via a wormhole—not in space, but in time. Turns out that the future us sent it back in time because they no longer possessed the deep-sea, sulfur-based microorganisms capable of destroying it, because shortly after the time of this crisis, we/they had done vent mining and inadvertently killed them all.
So, back to the killer bug, which is now destroying all flora and fauna across Utah in a mad dash to the water supply for Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the lab team is facing that security breach from the book. Here’s where things get really silly: Turns out that when they said water-cooled reactor early in the movie, they meant a wading pool at the bottom of the central maintenance shaft through which somebody’s going to have to climb to reach a security terminal—because the flashing lights caused one of the scientists to have a seizure and crash into the only terminal on their level. (This seizure is a nod toward the book, in which one of the scientists misses an important clue early in the story because a blinking warning light on his computer puts him into a fugue state.)
Naturally, a couple of people die by falling into the radioactive pool, but their sacrifice enables the protagonist to reach the next floor up, where he stops the countdown at one second. (It’s always at one second, right?) So the facility is able to rapid-grow a bunch of the deep-sea microorganism, which helicopters then spray on the spreading killer bug and stop it just in time.
There is, of course, a cliffhanger ending in which one small sample of the stuff is sent by a shady government operative to be stored in an orbiting space station. And the U.S. President decides to go ahead with the deep-sea vent mining, now that the threat is over.
So why did I watch it to the end? Well, the first half unfolds pretty well, seemingly just an updated version of the old film. And the third quarter is only mildly stupid. It isn’t until the final quarter that the idiocy really starts piling up, and by then it’s sort of like watching Titus Andronicus—Shakespeare’s one train wreck of a play—or anything by Ed Wood.
Buy the book. Rent the old film. But don’t fall for A&E’s pitch that “No sci-fi fan’s DVD collection is complete without it!” Shame on you, A&E. I might expect a film this cheezy from the Sci-Fi channel, because they’ve stated that as a programming objective, between their more inventive series. But not from you.