“The Andromeda Strain”: a brief review (w/spoilers)

| May 28, 2008

OK, I wrote an initial review after watching Part 1 of A&E’s miniseries, “The Andromeda Strain”. It was goofy and heavy-handed in its political agenda, but was still a bit fun, and I was waiting to see how Part 2 went.

So now I’ve watched Part 2, which (IMHO) descended from goofiness into full-blown stupidity. It’s hard to explain why without giving away spoilers, so I’ll detail my reasons after the jump. But the result of the constant stream of varied idiocies, big and small, robbed Part 2 of any tension or verisimilitude.

The irony was that the people who made this miniseries appeared to try hard to make the scientific dialog sound accurate and feasible, yet they repeatedly tripped up over relatively minor items. In the end, the whole miniseries came across as a 3rd-rate X-Files knock-off — some nice effects and production values, but hackneyed dialog and tired plot cliches.

Overall, I give it a ‘D’. Seriously. More after the jump.

Reasons why this miniseries deserved a ‘D’:

The makers of this miniseries worked very hard to give it an air of scientific verisimilitude (“Lorentzian or Euclidean wormholes?”), only to trip over some very obvious issues. Much of the ‘tension’ deals with a ‘Santa Ana’ weather system that is moving from east to west into southern Utah and towards Southern California. Two big problems. First, major weather systems don’t move from Colorado (the only thing east of souther Utah) into Utah, through Nevada, and into California. There are a few little problems, such as the Rocky Mountains and the jet stream. Second, a Santa Ana is a localized weather condition specific to Southern California; it doesn’t move in from Utah or Colorado.

The ebil US government gets even more ebil [I’m stealing that word from Charlie Jane Anders over at io9) in Part 2, blowing up a National Guard helicopter and three soldiers just to kill a pesky reporter, even though any half-decent crash/forensic analysis would quickly make it clear that this is exactly what happened. Other threats are made (including to entire civilian families) and other folks are assassinated by US gov’t agents.

Scanning a damaged smattering of squashed buckyballs (which are, y’know, round) doped with other minerals readily yields a clear and unambiguous binary pattern that translates error free not only into ASCII-encoded English but a rather sharp and highly detailed grapical image.

In a plot twist at the end that no one could possibly see coming, one of the samples of the Andromeda strain is secretly kept by the ebil US Government! It’s stored for posterity in the International Space Station in a large attached storage facility (since, as we know, the ISS has such an abundance of free space and never has anyone from other countries on board). Wait! Oh my gosh! That’s where the future got the Andromeda strain from! What a clever twist! I’ll bet that’s only be used in, oh, a few thousand SF short stories, novels, teleplays and movies.

Of course, the miniseries doesn’t explain how that lone sample was kept/collected, since the one sample kept at the Wildfire center had mutated and dissolved the seals of its containment vessel and everything outside of Wildfire was sprayed to death. It also doesn’t explain how that lone preserved sample failed to dissolve the container it was in . . . or why that sample, went sent back to our day from the future, had the original properties rather than the evolved ones.

And lest TAS leave any liberal shibboleth unvoiced, Ricky Schroeder’s character — the single military scientist who has responsibility for deciding whether to stop the nuclear blast in case Wildfire containment is breached — gets asked by one of the other scientists if he’s got a girlfriend back home. His response: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” And lest this be too subtle for you, the scientist who asked him then goes on to comment just how ironic this is that a gay man who can’t openly acknowledge his sexual preference is given such a major responsibility. What could have been a clever twist is thus turned into yet another dead-horse flogging.

Oh, and one scientist — while dying in a pool of radioactive water — managed to cut another scientist’s thumb off and throw it straight up a relatively narrow shaft (maybe 15′ wide) to a third scientist, who’s probably at least 20-30 feet above him. Do you know how hard that is to do? Our natural tendency is to arc our throws, because we’re usually throwing perpendicular to gravity; unless you practice doing it (as some baseball players do), it’s hard to throw straight up with any strength and accuracy; we tend to either throw off to one side or throw straight up with little height. Get something as small, light, and soft as a severed human thumb and try throwing it straight up; see what kind of height you can get.

And if the water in that cooling pool is so deadly that the throwing scientist dies within a minute or so, does that suggest that the scientist 20-30 feet above is likely toast as well?

Then there’s Jack Nash, NNT reporter and shirtless action hero (I kid you not), who manages singlehandedly to force a US military helicopter down, escape, and dodge bullet fire, all with his wrists twist-tied together, then kills a US military assassin with a rather obvious (and unlikely) trick and walk off with a cute pot-smoking girl. I personally suspect that this was a cheap ploy to get favorable reviews from MSM sources, but it clearly didn’t work.

Oh, and the major plot twist deals with the ebil Halliburton Enburtel corporation “strip mining” the ocean bottom in the future to such an extent that the sulfur-eating deep-sea-vent bacteria required to wipe out the Andromeda strain is exterminated. Do the folks who made this miniseries have any idea that the sea bottom covers over twice the area of the land surface of the earth? We’re talking about well over 140 million square miles (which is the ocean’s surface area; the sea floor’s surface area is much larger due to up and down slopes). Any idea how long it would take to “strip mine” even a tiny fraction of that area?

This hypothetical corporate-greed-leading-to-extinction-of-lowly-creature-that-can-save-our-butts (hey! another original plot theme! never heard that one before!) is why the future sends back the Andromeda strain through a wormhole inside of ASCII-encoded buckyballs. But, according to what some characters opine, it all goes wrong because the ebil US gov’t “Project Scoop” messed that up by collecting the buckyballs near the wormhole instead of . . . what? Letting them drift randomly to earth? Ignoring them? It’s clear that the future didn’t think this through clearly, since most alternatives to Project Scoop result at best in no communications at all and at worst with liberally salting the earth with the Andromeda strain.

And are you telling me that a civilization that has the capability of creating a Lorentzian wormhole and sending buckyball-encased Andromeda strain in time through it to a relatively precise location and time can’t simply genetically engineer a sulfur-eating lifeform, especially when they know which life form they need to replicate? Or maybe use some of that “incredibly advanced” nanotechnology to build sulfur-eating nanobots?

The longer you examine “The Andromeda Strain” miniseries, the more it falls apart into errors, absurdities, and contradictions.

Heck, a “D” may be too generous. ..bruce w..

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About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.