Arguably, one of the problems with recent science fiction narratives is that they invoke more fiction than science. If you think about it, such films as those in the Alien, Matrix, Terminator, Star Wars, and Star Trek series summon truly impossible technologies and dubious scientific facts. From time machines to spaceships that travel faster than the speed of light, the genre has almost completely been immersed inside the realm of fantasy. Such is the magnitude of this cultural shift that the techno-thriller is a new subgenre that has been established in order to categorize those novels and films that explore coherent speculations of modern science and technology.
This type of “hard” science fiction became popular shortly after the end of World War II. With the development of revolutionary weapons systems such as radar, missiles, jets, and atomic bombs, the war years appear to have ignited the imagination of several authors, who attempted to foresee the future of military technology. But even though the narrative structure of what is known today as the techno-thriller was originally defined during the mid 1940s, critics and fans agree that the formal establishment of this genre took place in 1969. And perhaps with good reason, this year witnessed the publication of Michael Crichton’s groundbreaking novel, The Andromeda Strain (1969), which is rightfully considered the “mother of the modern techno-thriller”.
In this inventive book, Crichton explores a nightmarish but truly believable situation. When a secret military satellite crash lands near the small town of Piedmont, Arizona, nearly everybody in the area dies instantaneously. For unknown reasons, only a young infant and a geriatric old man survive the onslaught. The government deploys the Wildfire Team, a group of four experts from diverse scientific disciplines who must deal with the terrifying prospect of a deadly extraterrestrial biological infestation.
In a high-tech laboratory in Nevada, the Wildfire team discovers that the responsible organism is a sulfur-based, bimolecular crystalline structure with no genomic constitution. The extraterrestrial organism, code named Andromeda, is on the fringe between being alive and being inert. That is, even though it does not have genetic structure, proteins, or amino acids, Andromeda is able to process energy to replicate itself, just like any other living creature. Furthermore, Andromeda mutates rapidly, dramatically changing its biochemical properties.
Crichton wrote The Andromeda Strain while he was a graduate student at the prestigious Harvard Medical School, and his extensive knowledge in medicine and biology permeate the entire book. For instance, nearly all the science and technology described in the novel are rather accurate descriptions of what was known and available at the time of its publication. Furthermore, the novel is written in a false-documentary style, which adds an incredible sense of realism. That is, the narrative quotes and cites a variety of authentic and fictional scientific papers, government documents, and newspaper articles. Therefore, The Andromeda Strain reads as if it was an official chronology of real events.
Nevertheless, what makes The Andromeda Strain so unique is that, in spite of its fictional construction, the book brings into play a series of real arguments and preoccupations regarding the origin of life that took place during the late 1960s. For instance, let us recall that as a protective measure, NASA quarantined the Apollo 11 astronauts upon return from their historical trip to the Moon in 1969. At the time, there was a sincere worry that microbes from the Moon could spread within the Earth’s ecosystem with cataclysmic results. As a consequence, the crew and their Moon samples were kept in tight isolation at the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas for nearly a month.
Therefore, at the time of its publication, The Andromeda Strain talked about genuine and serious concerns that preoccupied one of the most prestigious scientific establishments in the nation. The possibility of life forms that do not follow Earth’s biochemical structure was an active research field during the 1960s. Scottish biologist Alexander Cairns-Smith from the University of Glasgow had proposed the idea that self-replicating clay crystals were the earliest form of life on Earth. Even though the scientific community has recently refuted this hypothesis, it was a reasonable biogenetic theory at the time Crichton wrote The Andromeda Strain.
As a result of speculating with real scientific concerns in a believable manner, Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain quickly became a bestseller, and two years later it was taken to the silver screen under the able direction of the legendary Robert Wise. The film is a rather faithful adaptation of the novel, and today is considered an undisputed classic of science fiction cinema. Most notably, the production design by Boris Leven aptly showcased the sterile and claustrophobic Wildfire laboratory.
When the Sci-Fi Channel announced in 2004 their plans for a miniseries under the visionary hands of the production team of Tony and Ridley Scott, fans of Crichton’s book rejoiced at the prospect. After all, the Scott brothers have been behind some of the most fascinating, visionary, legendary and acclaimed films from the past three decades. After a few production delays, the series finally aired on the A&E Network this past May. For those who missed the premiere, the miniseries are now available on a DVD with a couple of significant extra features, including an informative audio commentary with the director, editor, and producers.
Unfortunately, the latest revision of The Andromeda Strain ended up being a huge disappointment that failed to deliver the goods in nearly all departments. But then again, it is extremely difficult to evaluate these miniseries without bringing to mind Crichton’s groundbreaking book and Wise’s imaginative film. And more than anything, it is impossible to oversee the many unnecessary changes that were made to a well-structured plot.
In this regard perhaps the biggest modification is to the factual scientific background behind The Andromeda Strain. If you think about it, with so many groundbreaking advances in the areas of biochemistry, microbiology, genomics, medicine, physics, astrophysics, biowarfare, and informatics that have taken place during the past 40 years, it would have served The Andromeda Strain well if there had been a revamping of its technological setting and jargon.
Regrettably, the filmmakers of these miniseries opted instead for truly far fetched pseudoscientific theories involving time travel and evil aliens bent on intergalactic domination. Indeed, it almost appears as if the new The Andromeda Strain attempted to combine the time travel complexities found in Crichton’s Sphere (1987), John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987), and Leonard Nimoy’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) with the extraterrestrial messengers from Roger Donaldson’s Species (1995) and John Bruno’s Virus (1999).
It is equally unforgivable that, in spite of being nearly three hours long, important passages in the book are obviated or ignored. Consider, for instance, the sophisticated decontamination procedure necessary to enter the Wildfire complex that was beautifully presented in the book and in Wise’s film version. In contrast, in the miniseries this sequence is reduced to a simple, albeit stylish, shower scene.
One of the reasons for such shortcomings may be that the miniseries attempt to showcase the wider impact of the unexpected arrival of a space microbe. That is, this recent adaptation places substantial emphasis on the presidential and military reactions to the crisis, and their attempt to cover the truth from the American public. In addition, the miniseries introduce a new subplot concerning a newspaper reporter trying to expose the conspiracy.
Arguably, the overall shift in emphasis from science to policy indicates that the producers of the miniseries attempted to make The Andromeda Strain relevant to current events. For example, the inadequate government actions to counteract Andromeda recall the aftermath of the hurricane Katrina. Also, the extensive use of the military to establish roadblocks and help with civil defense brings to mind the new role of the US armed forces in Iraq. And no less important, there is an ecological subtext in the film, regarding the mining of the thermal vents in the ocean floors.
However, all these situations feel forced into the narrative and only contribute to the overall absurdity of the miniseries. Lamentably, The Andromeda Strain miniseries is one more entry in the overlong list of unnecessary remakes that brings nothing important or innovative to the original. In this regard, it is perhaps ironic that because of our current fears about the prospect of biological weapons deployed by terrorists in our cities, the science and procedures behind Crichton’s book are as relevant as ever. As such, the original The Andromeda Strain almost appears to be prophetic. Therefore, the reader is urged to peruse the novel, and forget about these miniseries.