Friday, August 12, 2011

The Andromeda Strain (2008)

I’m a fan of Robert Wise’ 1971 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain. Although not free from scientific errors, I do like its basic message that when the world is threatened, the smart educated people are the ones who will save it – Kids, stay in school! – and the “ticking clock” finale is very suspenseful. So, it took me three years to watch the 2008 mini-series remake, since I figured it would be an inferior copy of the original. I needn’t have worried, since the new version uses only the basic setup from the original and then wildly diverges from the original. On the other hand, I didn’t miss anything, because this is quite a mess.

A pair of necking teenagers in rural Utah are interrupted by a crashing satellite. Unfortunately, this guy isn’t like every other teenage boy in existence, who would have ignored a nuclear explosion if he had a chance to get lucky. Instead, he stops the love-making to load the satellite in his truck (it isn’t explained how he managed to pick it up) and takes it to town, where the fire chief opens it. Everybody in town dies. Kids, in addition to staying in school, have sex instead of monkeying with crashed extraterrestrial objects. You’ll ruin fewer lives.

This triggers a “wildfire” alert – a possible runaway biological contagion. A team of scientists trained (debatable) to handle this is gathered and taken to an isolated facility. This is one of the better moments in the original film, when there is a knock at the original Jeremy Stone’s (Arthur Hill) house, and an army officer says “We have a wildfire.” The look on Hill’s face shows how terrifying the words are. In the remake, Jeremy Stone is played by Benjamin Bratt, and his Stone, given the same notification, has a hard time ending an argument with his wife to pay attention.

The rest of the team consists of surgeon Angela Noyce (Christa Miller), epidemiologist Charlene Barton (Viola Davis), former biological weapons maker for the Chinese government (!) Tsi Chou (Daniel Dae Kim) and Army doctor Bill Keane (Rick Schroeder). Keane is chosen as the “Odd Man” of the group. Since he is unmarried and has no children, psychologists believe he will be able to destroy the facility and kill everyone in it if the contagion gets out of control, since he has no emotional attachments. The psychologists have overlooked that Keane is unmarried because he’s gay, and gays can form emotional attachments. (If Michelle Bachmann reads this blog, I’m going to get an angry comment on that.) Keane is also put there to “counter” Stone by General Mancheck (Andre Braugher) who seems to have his own agenda. Or maybe not, it’s hard to tell. There is also an investigative journalist (Eric McCormack), fresh from rehab, trying to expose the story. Stone keeps him apprised of developments by telephone, security meaning something different in this universe.

Here’s where the plot diverges most of all. The satellite brought back a virus not from deep space, but from the future, sent by our future selves because they could not find a cure. Uh-huh. The expanded length is accounted for by a convoluted subplot about shadowy figures in the government working against the researchers to preserve the virus. They kill everyone who thwarts their sinister scheme and are led by the National Security Advisor, who has no apparent motivation for his actions, with the possible exception of quitting smoking. He’s just Evil, dammit! The President is shown as a bit of a doofus, who is determined to do the right thing, until the end of the movie, where he does the exact wrong thing, despite ample evidence to go the other way. No explanation given. The movie ends in an ontological paradox, in case your head needs to explode.

I’m not going to go into the myriad scientific errors, except to state the crack team shows no real skill or knowledge in dealing with the situation. They don’t even solve it in the end, the answer is given to them from another source. Benjamin Bratt looks more like an action hero than a cerebral scientist, and neither do the rest of the cast, with the possible exception of Kim. The original used actors who looked like scientists, and was better for it. The character of Keane vacillates wildly, from complete jerk to relative nice guy, as does General Manchek. The suspenseful finale is changed into shots of Bratt climbing a pipe, with a ludicrous thrown thumb (!) for unintentional laughter. There is also a last-minute betrayal by one of the researchers which leads to the needless deaths of two of the others, although she is forgiven enough to be seen mourning at their funeral in the end.

Watch the slightly dated original, if the topic interests you, and hope if there is an actual outbreak of deadly plague, the team fighting it is a little more on the ball.


Ginger Nuts said...

Speaking as a scientist, who looks like a rugged action hero, I take offence that the actors don't look like scientists.

KentAllard said...

If they were Scots, it would be different, as everyone knows Scotsmen can be both.

Ginger Nuts said...

Yeah, but they'd all have a speech impediment