Andromeda Pain

I just have to speak out on this–Last week I watched the A & E miniseries of The Andromeda Strain. It was quite possibly the worst thing I’ve seen on television in years.

If you loved the original 1971 film of the Crichton novel, I beg you to stay far, far away from the miniseries. While it contains some of the more technical and government-intrigue details that were implied in or left out of the original film, it is more than overloaded with tiresome contemporary commentary on the Middle East, social issues, and fear-of-government paranoia. I found it so confusing that, in the end, I wasn’t quite sure what the hell had happened, or why. The film gave the impression of being made by committee–everyone had to have their ideas crammed in–with four hours of space to fill, they probably figured, why not?

The Andromeda Strain was one of those films, like Planet of The Apes and Soylent Green, that had a huge impact on me as a child. I was a reader of ghost stories and the supernatural, but sci-fi kept me looking forward and engaged my imagination in a different way. Good sci-fi is unpredictable and holds the mystery of possibilities–the future that we have the power to create (or not!). I think that was the thing that depressed me about the A&E film: It was too bogged down in the concerns of the present and too relativistic to hold onto the kernel of the story.

The other thing I like about good sci-fi books and films is that they are often high-concept. They make huge assumptions: humankind can be easily wiped out by disease, there are monsters in space, a mysterious mist can shrink a man to sub-atomic proportions. It’s so fun to suspend one’s disbelief completely. I wish more fiction writers would let themselves go that direction–not necessarily into sci-fi, but into the realms of their wildest imaginations. (A plug for my friend Karen Dionne here, whose novel, Freezing Point, comes out in September. Talk about high-concept! Go Karen!)

My feelings about sci-fi films are also, I confess, a little sentimental. I saw most of the Planet of the Apes films from the back seat (or front, if I was lucky) of my parents’ car at the drive-in theater. We kids all wore our pjs, which was quite a treat given that we also got to visit the popcorn stand. I loved sitting between my parents, listening to the voices coming out of the metal box hanging on the driver’s side window, thinking it was very funny how the voices were never quite synced to the picture on the screen. I loved falling asleep during the second feature with my sisters, and sneaking peeks at the grown-up stuff that was coming on the screen when it was time to go home.

I gathered my kids to watch A&E’s Andromeda Strain, but let them wander away when it proved to be dull. This week we’ll rent the original video, put on our jammies and pop some popcorn to watch the real one. And if they wander away, it’ll still be okay. It’s my fantasy trip to the future, not necessarily theirs. (Though, I wonder if they’ll feel sentimental about, say, Transformers? Now that would be weird!)

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