(This review is part 1 of 2)
Released as a miniseries by A&E in the spring of 2008, The Andromeda Strain is based on Michael Crichton’s classic 1969 science fiction novel of the same name. TAS-08 is written by Robert Schenkken (who played David Deaver in the 1990 film Pump up the Volume), and is directed by Denmark’s Mikael Salomon, more famously known as the cinematographer on several Oscar winning films (Far and Away, Back Draft, Arachnophobia).
The narrative opens with a botched recovery of a NASA satellite that has unexpectedly fallen from orbit and crashed to earth near Piedmont, Utah in the present day United States. Curious Piedmontians discover the satellite before the arrival of a US Army recovery team and decide to look inside; releasing a toxin of unknown origin on unsuspecting townsfolk. While moving quickly to quarantine Piedmont, the Department of BioDefence scrambles Wildfire – an elite team of scientists providing the evidence in The President’s evidence-based decisions on biological crises (talk about your science fiction…). Operating under the indirect supervision of General George W. Mancheck (Andre Braugher); Dr. Jeremy Stone (Benjamin Bratt), Dr. Angela Noyce (Christa Miller), Dr. Tsi Chou (Daniel Dae Kim), Dr. Charlene Barton (Viola Davis) and Major Bill Keane MD (Rick Schroder) retrieve data from the contaminated area and are seconded to a top secret, underground government laboratory. On the outside, all this secret/not-so-secret activity draws the attention of journalist Jack Nash (Eric McCormack) who tries to figure out what is really going on.
As the first of a two disk release, disk one is almost completely context; introducing characters, new technology, and describing the cultural and political environment the plot unfolds in. The story is portrayed using five different perspectives – the scientific team sequestered in the underground lab, the decision-maker president and his white house staff who while being decisive have to run everything through the “how-will-this-play-out-in-the-election” filter, the US Army, the ultra-secretive National Security Agency (NSA), and (of course) the media.
Schenkken taps into real world events and popular culture by drawing repeatedly from the endless list of individual and institutional failures that lead to the war in Iraq – primarily the dysfunction surrounding the US Military, intelligence agencies and the Oval Office – with a sideways reference to rogue nations, economic greed, the environment and “Area-51.” All of this is presented through the use of short vignettes that introduce characters, outline personal relationships and establish institutional dynamics; effectively creating a patchwork of information that may or may not allow the viewer to grasp what is going on.
Some of the reviews I have read have been critical of the cast, the story and the interpretation of the novel. As I am reviewing this in a bubble so to speak – having not seen the first theatrical release, nor having read the book – I’m inclined to disagree with this criticism in a state of blissful ignorance. The cast comes across as reasonably real – I found the performances to be authentic. No one steals the show, and at no point did any of the actors’ performances remind me of a previous role.
The story has a very current feel to it – contentious ideologies, hot-button issues, public cynicism for those in charge. At its heart is the portrayal of competing bureaucratic entities in the face of a serious crisis – can these bodies be trusted to set aside their partisan nature when decisions need to be made; or will they be constantly distracted from the real issues while playing an obtuse game of perception manipulation?
Technically, the special effects are well done and used relatively sparingly. I did find the medical computer in the Wildfire lab to be a little far-fetched for a story that is supposed to be contemporary. I’m all for voice-directed, diagnostic tools that can provide real-time patient data (right down to hematology results) in addition to performing all kinds of medical tests at the verbal request of a doctor – I’m just not sure if it exists yet!
One thing I wished the writers had done is explain the animosity between some of the main characters. This history is referred to abstractly in dialogue, but has an impact on the plot development. Perhaps more will be revealed in part 2.
Taking part one of The Andromeda Strain at face value, and not comparing it to the original or other interpretations – I recommend it. Nothing exists in a vacuum however, so once having seen part 2, reading Crichton’s original and checking out the 1971 movie this opinion could change.