Oh, horrors -- a mutated 'Strain'

Times Staff Writer

In 1969, "The Andromeda Strain" unleashed Michael Crichton on an unsuspecting public, and the world has never been the same. Yes, he had written three books previously, but those were originally published under pseudonyms; it was with "The Andromeda Strain" that Crichton established his name and his trademark -- thrillers loosely rooted in science that explore the moral obligations and contradictions of technology and that almost unfailingly become movies. Nearly 40 years later, Crichton owns science and medicine the way John Grisham owns the law.

You'd think that would be enough to ask of a simple tale of an extraterrestrial disease that comes to Earth via satellite and kills a bunch of people by making their blood clot instantly until a crack team of scientists figures out what it is and makes it go away (perhaps).

But some people, well meaning no doubt, just can't leave well enough alone. The movie version of "The Andromeda Strain" came out in 1971, and for years there have been rumors of a remake, never mind that pandemic flicks are now a dime a dozen or that space no longer occupies the same psycho-political place in the national psyche it once did. Industry heavy hitters Tony Scott and Ridley Scott wanted to produce a remake of "The Andromeda Strain" and would not, apparently, be denied.

So here it is, a two-part A&E; miniseries that manages, despite a cast culled from some of the best shows on TV, to be both overwrought and dull, a veritable Frankenfilm of sci-fi thrillers, built of debris from sources including "Outbreak," "Sphere," "The Omega Man," "The Birds," "The China Syndrome" and, oh, yes, "The Andromeda Strain."

At its pseudo heart is Dr. Jeremy Stone, a maverick scientist played with monotonous intensity by Benjamin Bratt, late of "Law & Order," and Jack Nash, an ill-shaven reporter (Eric McCormack) who for reasons known only to screenwriter Robert Schenkkan is also a drug addict. Sort of. You know, the kind who can actually go days without the drugs and suffer no ill effects. Still, it gives McCormack a chance to finally shake off "Will & Grace" and look angry and butch.

"Loosely based" does not begin to describe the liberties taken with Crichton's original story. Andromeda still falls from the sky via satellite, killing the entire town of Piedmont save one Sterno-swilling drunk and a colicky baby (who, for the record, does not cry once during the entire film, despite being trapped in a glass tube). The crack team, Wildfire, is assembled and taken to a lab far beneath the Earth's surface. But there all similarity ends as the filmmakers attempt to ramp up the action. The lab, for instance, sits atop "a nuclear device," by which I think they mean a bomb.

This being 2008, the team includes two women -- Dr. Angela Noyce (Christa Miller from "Scrubs"), who has the hots for Dr. Stone, and Dr. Charlene Barton (Viola Davis from "Traveler"), who leaves behind her family -- a former Chinese scientist (Daniel Dae Kim, Jin on "Lost") and a tough gay soldier (Ricky Schroder, most recently on "24").

Putting a group of people in a confined space with weird lighting should lead to some interesting psychological developments, but that's not what "Andromeda's" going for. Instead, the team robotically throws out theories and scientific terms, like the cast of "House" on downers. There is the obligatory dulcet-toned computer that smoothly accedes to their every wish until, of course, Andromeda attacks our team, at which time the computer breaks down and tries to kill them.

Above ground, the disease spreads and mutates, turns water and hillsides red, shows signs of intelligent life, kills people and animals, drives birds insane, does everything in fact except take to the airwaves and demand the return of "Laverne & Shirley" to prime time.

Unscrupulous members of the military have something to hide, which Nash is determined to find out at his personal peril. People kill themselves and one another in horrible ways, things crash and burn, a nuclear bomb is detonated, North Korea makes threatening noises, environmentalists take people hostage, the possibility of time travel is briefly explored, undersea drilling turns out to be a bad idea and, in the end, life as we know it is saved by Schroder's thumb.

All of which sounds much more interesting than it plays on TV, where every action and event is given precisely the same dramatic weight, backed by the same ominous mood music. The problem with resurrecting "Andromeda" is that, after years of escalating Crichton and other science/medical thrillers, the original story seems fairly bland. Unfortunately, the solution was not to take the plot to Defcon 5 and nuke it to death. Because while Andromeda the strain feeds off such extreme energy, "Andromeda" the movie just turns to irradiated dust.


mary.mcnamara@latimes .com


'The Andromeda Strain'

Where: A&E;

When: 9 to 11 p.m. today and


Rating: TV-PG V (may be unsuitable for young children with advisory for violence)

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday, May 29, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction 'The Andromeda Strain': The review of "The Andromeda Strain" in Monday's Calendar section said that one of the ways the new A&E; miniseries differs from Michael Crichton's book is that filmmakers attempted to ramp up the action by putting a nuclear self-destruct device beneath the Wildfire lab. However, there also was a self-destruct device in Crichton's book.
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