Robert Wise’s 1971 adaptation of “The Andromeda Strain” remains a small science-fiction gem, so this two-night formulation — slightly bloated, mildly entertaining and painfully shot full of adrenalin — is better suited to those who never saw the first. Tapping into 21st-century paranoia, the latest “Strain” cultivated from Michael Crichton’s novel combines a messy hodge-podge of elements, each of them pallid compared with that earlier go-round. Nevertheless, with the Scott brothers imprimatur, world-in-peril hook, timeliness of biohazards and frenetic pacing, A&E should inoculate enough viewers to justify the experiment.
The premise remains much the same: A satellite falls to Earth near the small western town of Piedmont, unleashing a plague that kills everyone in the area, with the puzzling exception of a crying baby and a booze-addled old man. Code-naming the threat Andromeda, the government assembles a crack team of researchers led by Dr. Jeremy Stone (Benjamin Bratt), whisking them off to the top-secret Wildfire facility to combat the mysterious toxin.
Where the movie was content to focus on that process, director Mikael Salomon (who directed “The Company” for Scott Free) and writer-playwright Robert Schenkkan throw in a veritable kitchen sink of elements. Beyond the central danger, subplots include political intrigue regarding the current president (complete with a “Fail-Safe” thread), “The X-Files”-style conspiracies, and an investigative TV reporter (as if that isn’t currently an oxymoron) who’s more Rambo than Woodward and Bernstein, albeit niftily played by Eric McCormack.
Too bad, because the project has assembled a solid cast, even if they’re constrained by spouting all that scientific jargon and spend too much time squabbling and grappling with outside distractions. In addition to Bratt, the Wildfire bunch includes Ricky Schroder, Christa Miller, “Lost’s” Daniel Dae Kim and Viola Davis. Andre Braugher also turns up as a crusty general, having donned stripes for last year’s “Fantastic Four” sequel as well.
If Cold War hysteria fueled “Andromeda” four decades ago, apprehensions about biological weapons and terror make such fears equally relevant today. The shame is that all the embroidery surrounding Crichton’s template obscures “Andromeda’s” more cerebral aspects within several familiar layers of apocalyptic sci-fi.
Not surprisingly, this two-parter boasts a more sophisticated, high-tech look than its predecessor and devotes more attention to special effects, though without sounding like a broken record, I kind of miss the antiseptic white suits and minimalist trappings, too. As if to put a modern stamp on things, Schenkkan does pepper the script with amusing cultural references, from the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to “The Colbert Report.”
It should also be noted that the current Wildfire team is far more ethnically diverse than before, which represents a certain kind of progress. For each step forward, though, there’s a step back, as that metamorphosis has left behind a considerably younger group of scientific geniuses — a not-so-subtle side effect of the modern media’s pervasive demographic virus.