Jackson and his girlfriend are making out one night in a field, in the back of his pick-up truck. Their heavy petting is disrupted when a large flaming object hurtles down from the sky, plummeting to the ground beside them.
Against his woman's wishes, Jackson straps the object - which he recognises as a fallen satellite - onto the back of his truck and drives to the nearest town in a bid to get it examined.
Jackson's movements are monitored by two soldiers in a jeep who are tracking the satellite's whereabouts. They follow him to a small, sleepy Utah town where they observe his parked vehicle and prepare to retrieve the satellite. However, they suddenly notice that the quiet street is littered with dead bodies. As the soldiers vacate their jeep and expose themselves to the night air, they too die screaming.
Enter the shady General Mancheck (Andre Braugher, THE MIST), who is in charge of retrieving the satellite and covering up any fallout that may come with it. In a succession of quickly edited scenes we meet a plethora of characters, who between them will govern the unfolding story over the following 168 minutes.
On the military front, Mancheck is flanked by "Chuck" Beeter, the director of the National Security Council, and James Ferrus - a right-hand-man to Mancheck, behind the scenes.
We also meet American President William Scott (Ted Whittall) and his press secretary Pat Terrence (Jonathan Potts, MR MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM).
Most significantly, we are introduced to a group of scientists and doctors who are individually rushed out of their respective homes by the army, and summoned to take part in a mission of utmost secrecy.
Led by divorcee Jeremy Stone (Benjamin Bratt, DEMOLITION MAN), the group of doctors also consists of his old flame Angela (Christa Miller, THE STEPFATHER 3) - an expert in "exotic diseases", Chou (Daniel Dae Kim, CRASH) - who used to work for the military as a biochemist before finding God, homegirl Charlene (Viola Davis, DISTURBIA) and Keane (Rick Schroder, THE CHAMP) - an army scientist with a grudge to bear against Stone.
Last but by no means least, we meet Nash (Eric McCormack, ALIEN TRESPASS). Nash is a recovering alcoholic, forced into 30 days of rehab by his newspaper editor boss in an attempt to save his damaged career. Nash checks himself out of rehab when his mole Jonathan rings him with the promise of the story of a lifetime. For reasons that later become clear, Nash is particularly interested in Mancheck's connection to the story.
As Nash meets Jonathan and is shown video footage hacked from the doomed soldiers' jeep's surveillance camera, the team of doctors stay busy in army headquarters, getting the low-down from the no-nonsense Mancheck.
He informs the team that a satellite has fallen to Earth, possibly after colliding with a meteorite or "space debris". When it fell, it somehow unleashed a virus of unknown origin, which the army have codenamed "Andromeda". The scientists have been pooled together to research the virus, identify it and ultimately cure it … as discreetly as possible.
The doctors, though, are suspicious of Mancheck's story. They want to know why a seemingly ordinary satellite was targeted for immediate retrieval by the army. Mancheck doesn't admit to having the answers and appears to be just as shocked as they are when, upon closer inspection of the army's aerial video footage of the contaminated town, Charlene points out what seems to be a survivor.
Donning protective masks and clothing, Stone, Angela and Keane are transported by helicopter to the plagued town. There, they take a tour of the area on foot, looking for signs of life. As human bodies litter the streets, their veins bloated and blood turned into a powdery substance, the scientists remark that the animals - a barking dog; a swarm of hungry buzzards - seem unaffected by the disease.
The team stumble across a screaming baby and recover her, making their way back to the helicopter. On the way they run into a male survivor, behaving insanely aggressive and vomiting blood. They take both on board and fly back to headquarters with the intention of running tests on the pair to see why and how they managed to survive.
In the meantime, Mancheck has been made aware that his old nemesis Nash is on the case. He orders that his mole be found and silenced - cue Ferrus, posing as a highway patrolman. He pulls Jonathan over on his motorcycle for speeding … and shoots him in the head. So now we know how bad these guys can be!
News of his mole's homicide only fuels Nash's belief that a major conspiracy is unfolding. Upon learning that his old friend Stone has been roped into events, he closes in with his investigations - as the doctors' examinations upon the survivors reveal some unsavoury surprises, the political plot thickens, and the virus becomes more potent …
Based on Michael Crichton's novel, which in itself was adapted in film format in 1971, this updated version of THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN was co-produced by Ridley Scott (ALIEN; GLADIATOR) and Tony Scott (TRUE ROMANCE; MAN ON FIRE) as a 2-part TV mini-series.
As far as made-for-TV fare goes (of which, admittedly, I catch very little) this holds up as exceedingly credible entertainment.
Performances are homogeneously strong. Even McCormack is convincing, once you get past his designer stubble aimed at reminding us he's not to be confused with his clean shaven gay alter-ego from "Will & Grace". Wisely not overplaying the drunkard card, his portrayal of Nash is agreeably neurotic and authentic if you go with it.
Bratt as Stone is a likeable if unremarkable hero, while Braugher gives an effortlessly sinister turn as the ambiguous Mancheck. If anything, the female characters are given the least to do. Therefore the actresses are ploughing a largely thankless task - only Davis as Charlene registers.
While the screenplay doesn't afford the female characters much fleshing out, the extended running time does at least allow it the opportunity to explore character backgrounds more.
Hence, we learn about Stone's continual wrestling with his estranged wife Lisa and wayward son Lance; we get an insight into the emotions of the husband and kids that Charlene is pining to run back to; and the animosity between Nash and Mancheck - all harking back to an incident covered up in Kuwait a couple of years earlier - is sufficiently explored. Rather than detract from the tension, these sub-plots are never intrusive: they help build three-dimensional roles for the characters, thus making them more believable as the action progresses.
Further benefits of the TV production include it being able to take time to explore the book's finer plot details too (conspiracy plot theorists will enjoy the script's increasingly paranoid leanings as the ante is upped in the second instalment) and the fact that special effects these days allow a better visual representation of what Crichton had envisaged. Modern elements incorporated into the screenplay (Stone's grungy son; mobile telephones; tales of Mancheck selling weapons to Saddam Hussein; the hi-tech computer equipment used by the army) are integrated well, bringing THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN up to date persuasively.
The FX are pretty good throughout, offering some painful-looking corpses with veins practically bulging from their skin, decent CGI buzzards in their dozens, a nifty aeroplane crash-explosion that ends part 1 on a cliff-hanger, and minor gore peppered throughout part 2.
Stylistically, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN looks surprisingly cinematic, with attractive widescreen compositions and grand exterior locations that help make it feel epic in scope. The aforementioned computer equipment is extremely convincing in looking ultra-modern and state of the art, giving the production a further polished sheen. This is no meagre-budget affair - this is, for all intents and purposes, a film … in two halves.
Disc 1 presents part 1, which runs for 85 minutes. Disc 2 delivers (you guessed it) part 2, winding up the plot in tense fashion in just 83 minutes.
Each instalment has it's own scene-selection menu allowing access via 18 chapters.
On both discs, the film is presented in anamorphic 1.78:1. This is one of the best transfers I've seen in a long time. Images are incredibly clean and detailed, with rich colours and pin-sharp definition. With well-honed flesh tones and problem-free blacks, this is quite simply a gorgeous presentation.
The same can be said for the expertly balanced and beefy English 5.1 audio track.
An audio commentary is split across both instalments, and is provided courtesy of director Mikael Salomon, executive producers David W Zucker and Tom Thayer, and editor Scott Vickrey. They offer a well-balanced and gracious chat, each contributing their fair share of information along the way. Salomon understandably holds the most weight here, but Thayer is not far behind.
For more on the production's evolution from inception to eventual shooting, check out the very professionally assembled Making Of documentary "Terra Incognita" on disc 1. This contains interviews with all the people most involved in bringing this production to the screen, including Ridley Scott - arguing why a novel is so much better suited to TV serialisation than film adaptation - and Thayer, who is keen to remind us that it was he who got the ball rolling.
Visually attractive and slickly edited, this is an engaging and informative documentary - an apt accompaniment to the enjoyable main feature.
Over on disc 2, a 15-minute featurette on the series' many visual effects shines further light on it's making.
Rounding out the extras, again on disc 2, is a "Photo and Design Gallery" offering a whopping 110 stills.
I confess, I anticipated this as being a rather arduous watch. But lo, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN was well paced, aesthetically pleasing and undeniably entertaining. Dare I say it; I preferred this to the 1971 film.
Well worth a peek.
Review by Stu Willis
|Released by Universal Pictures UK|
|Region 2 - PAL|
|see main review|