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Straining Credibility

The Andromeda Strain reborn.

12:00 AM, Jun 6, 2008 • By SONNY BUNCH
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A COUPLE OF MONTHS ago Ross Douthat, the Atlantic senior editor and occasional WEEKLY STANDARD contributor, wrote an intriguing essay called "The Return of the Paranoid Style," in which he argued that the spate of anti-war, anti-Republican films flooding the multiplexes were a liberal reaction to the Iraq war. Conservatives had vainly "hoped that 9/11 would bring back the best of the 1940s and '50s, playing Pearl Harbor to a new era of patriotism and solidarity," he wrote. "Many on the left feared that it would restore the worst of the same era, returning us to the shackles of censorship and conformism, jingoism and Joe McCarthy. But as far as Hollywood is concerned, another decade entirely seems to have slouched round again: the paranoid, cynical, end-of-empire 1970s."

I couldn't help but think of Douthat while watching the dreadful remake of The Andromeda Strain on A&E (out on DVD this past Tuesday). The original Andromeda Strain (1971) is very much a classic of Seventies cinema: Ponderous and plodding, the visual style makes it instantaneously recognizable as a product of its time. Split screens and deep focus shots abound, as do static, lingering two-shots, and long takes since obliterated by the quick-cutting style of MTV and its descendents. Thematically it is also a product of the era: Anti-nuclear, anti-biological warfare, and anti-Vietnam war themes pervade the work.

Nevertheless, those themes are secondary to the story, as written by Michael Crichton. By contrast, this remake throws subtlety out the window, taking on very nearly every left-wing cause imaginable and reveling in hatred of George W. Bush.

The Andromeda Strain recounts five tension-filled days after a satellite crashes back to Earth, bringing with it a devastating plague that wipes out a small desert town. Scientists are called in from every corner of America to determine exactly what killed the town and how to neutralize it. (After traveling down some dead ends, the team realizes that the virus has mutated into a non-deadly form and can be killed by putting it in an environment of excess acidity.) Some action scenes are tossed in for good measure, and a nuclear weapon must be disarmed lest its explosion spread the virus across the western seaboard.

At least, that's what the book and its original adaptation recount. Long at 131 minutes on the big screen, the A&E version tacks on an extra 50 minutes while shedding much of the original film. So what comprises that additional hour? Political intrigue! Environmental action! Shadowy conspiracies! Military murders! Suppression of the media! Kidnapping and extortion! An Enron-like corporation! Evil conservatives! Do-gooder liberals!

Indeed, the plot is so dense and full of unnecessary twists that it's almost impossible to retell in one paragraph, but I'll try. The Department of Homeland Security and the Army intended to bring a biological weapon back from space to America, but the weapon actually comes from the future, sent to us through a wormhole by Americans in the future who no longer have the capability to kill the superbug because of deep-sea heat-vent drilling that has wiped out one precious bacteria necessary for controlling the Andromeda strain.

As if the absurd plot weren't enough, it's astounding how many pet causes are jammed into this little picture. The military spends a ton of screen time trying to kill intrepid reporter Jack Nash (Eric McCormack), who seeks to expose members of the military-industrial complex for crimes they have committed. We also learn the evils of don't-ask-don't-tell when one of the scientists--yes, the very one who controls the nuclear warhead at the heart of the underground laboratory where the Andromeda strain is being studied, and who must decide whether or not to allow the nuke to destroy the building in the event of an emergency--reveals the fact behind his confirmed bachelorhood. Not least, we learn about the horrors of racism when conservative members of the cabinet mock a Chinese-American virologist helping determine the best way to cure the infection.

You get the point: Tony and Ridley Scott, executive producers of this monstrosity, took a genuinely entertaining, and only mildly preachy, movie and transformed it into a bloated corpse bearing only the slightest resemblance to what worked in the first Andromeda Strain. Considering its silly science--did I mention that the virus is sentient and able to communicate with itself over vast distances?--and sillier politics, it's genuinely shocking that Michael Crichton signed off on this project. Let's hope the check was worth it.

Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.