If you were flying over the scenic mining town of Hedley, British Columbia, last summer, you might have been a tad freaked out. You would have seen smoke and flames and rows of bodies lying dead on the street. The only sign of life: three solitary figures dressed in biohazard suits.
With luck, someone would have told you that a miniseries remake of the sci-fi classic The Andromeda Strain (May 26 and 27 at 9 pm/ET, A&E) was being shot, the bodies were local residents playing dead, and the guys in the bio-suits were famous actors. After all, in this age of global epidemics and biological warfare, it's not terribly hard to imagine this scene playing out for real.
Based on Michael Crichton's best-selling novel from four decades ago, A&E's star-packed, four-hour Andromeda is the second screen adaptation (a feature was released in 1971), but exec producer Ridley Scott believes it's more relevant today than ever. "It activates a subconscious fear of apocalypse that only becomes more potent as our civilization lurches forward with more destructive weapons and combative rhetoric," he says.
Well, yeah. But is it any fun?
Believe it or not, it is. Produced by heavy- hitting brothers Ridley (Gladiator) and Tony Scott (Top Gun), the miniseries imagines what would happen if a deadly pathogen, code-named Andromeda, landed on Earth and rapidly began to wipe out the human race. A good portion of the book (and 1971 movie) took place in a subterranean lab called Wildfire, where scientists desperately tried to find an antidote to the strain. The new miniseries moves most of the action to military maneuvers on the ground and in the air. Gone is the Cold War paranoia, the robotic doctors and petri dishes, replaced by 21st-century science and hot-button issues: big corporations' influence over government, environmental activism, the North Korean nuclear threat.
All in all, a helluva lot more exciting. The lab stuff, in '71, "was groundbreaking and revolutionary," says Andre Braugher, who plays Gen. George Mancheck, "but now it's dated."
Joining Braugher (and no doubt helping make the production among the most expensive in A&E's history) are Benjamin Bratt (Law & Order), Eric McCormack (Will & Grace), Ricky Schroder (NYPD Blue), Christa Miller (Scrubs), Viola Davis (Traveler) and, speaking fluent English — who knew? — Daniel Dae Kim (Lost).
As for the Andromeda strain itself, the new and improved bug uses the original bad boy merely as a starting point. Sure the strain can still turn its victims' blood to dust. But it can leave some unfortunates wandering the wasteland like homicidal zombies. Even nuclear bombs can't stop this lethal plague — in fact, they help it grow.
Another plot twist that touches a contemporary nerve is the U.S. government's mysterious role in the strain. "There is a conspiratorial element that underlies the story that I found refreshing," says Bratt, whose Dr. Jeremy Stone heads up the team of scientists responsible for finding a cure. "A lot of television content I see nowadays is sort of dumbed down. It shoots for the lowest common denominator. This particular project didn't."
The role was a departure for Bratt, who's traded the sharp suits of his old Law & Order detective for a bio-suit. "It was 112 degrees outside the suit," he says of the heat in Hedley. "Inside was probably around 150 degrees."
McCormack had it a bit easier playing aggressive and pompous journalist Jack Nash. "Think Anderson Cooper meets Geraldo," he says. Like many characters in this TV version, Nash does not appear in the original book or movie. He spends most of his time on screen trying to uncover government secrets and dodging government bullets — something that drew him to the project. "I get to actually be in a helicopter and make it crash," he says. "There were very little stunts on Will & Grace. Usually they involved cooking in the kitchen. That was the most dangerous thing."
Scrubs' Miller also goes dramatic as surgeon Angela Noyce. She says she researched the part by talking to her dad, a doctor. "He taught me how to use a scalpel," she says. "And all the wrong things that actors do when they use scalpels."
Such attention to detail pays off. This Andromeda Strain is seriously scary stuff — and not for the germaphobic. Schroder admits that he found himself washing his hands more than normal. "It seems like every six months in the news, there's some sort of avian flu or SARS," he says. "It's frightening that there could be some sort of mass virus that's spread. Some disease gets released into the population and it could spread. Like wildfire." It remains to be seen if this latest Strain proves equally infectious.
Use our Online Video Guide to watch clips of The Andromeda Strain.
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