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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

The Andromeda Strain

Although there is never a moment in the 2008 miniseries adaptation of The Andromeda Strain from Universal that provokes laughter or eye-rolling incredulity, the script is not very good and the film is generally unsatisfying. While the show follows the basic outline of the Michael Crichton bestseller and the entertaining 1971 Robert Wise film adaptation, whenever it tries to stray from Crichton’s plot it gets completely lost. Supposedly, the ‘rapidly mutating’ virus that the crack team of disease experts are attempting to conquer was sent to Earth from the future in a time capsule, presumably for the same reason that one gets vaccinations, although they never explain it that way. Instead, there is a government conspiracy to hide its source that is busy murdering reporters who are just trying to get a read on the epidemic. If you stop and think about any major plot point in the film, it makes no sense at all (just how did those teenagers load that heavy, hot fallen satellite onto the back of their pickup?), and what are supposed to be climactic moments in the narrative never provide the emotional release that would compensate for their unlikelihood. Wise’s staging of the ‘climb up the access tube’ lingers in one’s memory long after every other detail of the movie has faded away, but in the miniseries, it is a spectacle without suspense and is instantly forgettable. The entire 176-minute program, which is broken into two parts on two platters, each with full opening and closing credits, comes across as an amalgam of half-hearted ideas tacked onto the Crichton template but never really thought through and certainly not given the intellectual or scientific scrutiny that was the hallmark of Crichton’s writing to begin with.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The color transfer looks fine and the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound is reasonably energetic. There are optional English subtitles, an excellent collection of production designs and photos in still frame, a good 16-minute montage of images showing different stages of the special effects being applied to the picture, and a passable 26-minute production featurette. There is a commentary track with several of the show’s creators, including producer David Zucker, and if you can get past their obliviousness to the show’s shortcomings, they do have a lot of rewarding things to say about working under the constraints of a TV budget, the advantages and disadvantages of shooting on digital over film, and the nature of constructing narratives for television broadcast. “[With digital,] you can keep rolling and that’s sometimes a huge advantage because every time you have to reload, it breaks people’s concentration and it takes time and, again, that’s the resource you don’t have enough of, time. Film is still more light sensitive. Film still has a quality that’s very hard to define. Maybe it’s because the grains in a film are organic as opposed to pixels in a digital image that are static. You sometimes get an interference with elements in the shot that you don’t get on film because every frame of film, the grain is in a different place, because it’s moving, and that gives it a little bit more of an organic feel. The other thing is the sensibility to light. The new stocks that are out, of film, are just amazing. If you can see it, you can shoot it, whereas in digital, especially when you’re using the kinds of cameras we did that have the advantage of using the big sensor, they’re not as light sensitive as film is. Then there’s also kind of the tricky question unique to television, in that how, particularly from a grading standpoint, do you approach to get the best filmic look but keep in mind the monitors people will still be watching on at home.

“Usually the script comes with act breaks and so they’re kind of built in and you do want to have something exciting happen at the end of each act. It used to be where there would be seven acts for each ‘2-hour’ movie and now they’ve got them up to, I think it’s nine acts. Some of these acts are very short. They’re only about 5 or 6 minutes, and you have all of these rules in terms of how short the act can be and making sure act breaks, hopefully, don’t fall off the top or bottom of the hour, and so you’re not always serving your story. A lot of times the total length of the show has to be 88 minutes and 14 seconds, and so it is always a battle trying to fit this piece into a certain amount of time, and most of the time it works out, but there are times when you feel you’ve had to cut out too much material, or sometimes acts end a little too abruptly.”

July 9, 2008

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon