A&E’s *The Andromeda Strain* (Emphasis on “Strain”)

Cover to 1969 version of the *Andromeda Strain* paperbackIn 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.

4 thoughts on “A&E’s *The Andromeda Strain* (Emphasis on “Strain”)

  • Pingback: The Andromeda Strain 40 years later | MAGGI PICAYUNE

  • June 5, 2008 at 11:15 pm

    The whole Dune franchise gets a little muddied in my mind. I read the novel as a teenager, when it was fresh off the presses and sci-fi readers were still pretty rare, then read at least two of the sequels (which I know only because I remember Duncan coming back with those mechanical eyes, something Tim Brown tells me was after the first book) before losing interest. Friends today tell me the novel line starts to lose any semblance of sense after book two or three, and having seen the way publishing works (“Write us some more of the same thing you just wrote, except different—but not too different because we know how to sell only what you succeeded with before,” or, to use a metaphor, “let’s ride this horse until it’s dead, because we don’t know if that fresh horse is any good”), I can believe it.

    As for the original movie, I was delighted on two counts: 1.) They didn’t dumb it down much for a general audience (and really didn’t need to hand out that glossary), and 2.) my wife, who is an artist rather than a writer, and not so voracious a reader as I, fell in love with it. She became a fan of all things Dune, including the console game, then Dune 2000 on her PC, then the Sci-Fi Channel remake of the film (see, I haven’t forgotten your original question), and then the Children of Dune series they followed up with.

    I’d agree with Jenny that the Sci-Fi channel remake of the original novel was as enjoyable as the Hollywood version, and interesting because they were able to devote more time to it, playing up more characters. Children of Dune she wasn’t as warm to, largely because of the direction they took Paul’s sister—which, given the reported weirdnesses of the novel line, may not have been their fault, of course.

    So there you go: A fairly long, rambling, and noncommittal answer to your question.


  • June 3, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    I loved the original movie. Even on TV with commercial interruptions it was tense and scary. I could’ve sworn that the original organism had a small pH range which was why the baby and town drunk were the only survivors; the baby’s crying did the acid part and the drunk’s blood still have booze in it kept the organism at bay.

    However, it’s small wonder the hero was a doctor due to Crichton’s medical background. He should’ve stuck to medical thrillers too since he doesn’t know squat about climate change, dinosaurs, the Middle Ages or DNA sequencing. The former was a glaring show of his politics AND ignorance.

    What’s your take on the re-make of Dune? I loved that since it got a better opportunity to tell the larger story of the novel. I like the Lynch movie too yet I know its scope had to be narrowed for film to get a general audience. Trust me, when the usher hands you a glossary before entering the theater, most people roll their eyes.

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