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Movie or Technology Quarterly?
2008-05-29 10:52
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Tuesday night I went out to see Iron Man, and then having not had my fill of near-future technology parables, I watched the first half of A&E's so-so Andromeda Strain miniseries. Yesterday morning I watched the finale, which had an absurd scene where a jeep raced away from a CGI representation of a spreading biological infection (pretty sure it doesn't work that way) but did redeem itself with the spectacle of both Ricky Schroder and Daniel Dae Kim from "Angel" and "Lost" dying horribly in a nuclear cooling pool.

The most interesting thing about Iron Man, besides Robert Downey Jr.'s zesty lead performance, is how this particular comic book property needed to be updated very little in order to fit in our modern times. The Afghani arms dealers of whom Tony Stark runs afoul in the new movie could be the generically foreign thugs of comic books from any age, and the whirring devices that put on and remove Stark's suit don't look too far removed from the robots you see in modern-day car commercials. (Of course, that doesn't include Iron Man's second-most interesting character, the assembly arm with the personality of a puppy.) The eight or so writers seem to think that the extreme current resonance of the property excuses them from providing more than the most standard betrayal-and-final-bashup plot. Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges are totally wasted, although the latter must have relished the opportunity to portray the operator of a giant killer robot at age 59.

Almost all of the intriguing action in the second half of the film is veiled hints as to what the second Iron Man film will be like, including Sam Jackson's post-credit cameo. I did like the gritty Batman Begins flavor of the early scenes of Iron Man's origins, and the way the movie doesn't play things in strict chronological origin at the very beginning -- the first scene is one of the best in the picture. Downey and his sculpted goatee are good the whole way through, and I appreciated that they got a track by Ghostface Killah, the real Iron Man, on the soundtrack. Still, franchise-establishing pictures ought still to be burdened with the need of standing as films in their own right. This one barely qualifies.

TV movie casts are weird beasts because the "name" actors who fill the lead roles always have a fatal flaw that keeps them from doing movies, while the character actors who fill the supporting roles don't care whether it's movies or TV and usually eclipse the stars. That was certainly true of Andromeda Strain, where Kim and Viola Davis in smaller parts utterly outpaced Benjamin Bratt and Eric McCormack, the nominal leads. It was nice to see Christa Miller from "Scrubs" in a dramatic role, although her character ended up being the least interesting of the five down in the Wildfire laboratory.

I'm a big fan of both the original Andromeda Strain novel and the early-70's movie, both of which, particularly the novel, were rather old-fashioned constructions. The book spent almost the whole of its length meticulously explaining every detail of the lab's construction and the nature of the exotic organism and then at the last instant sprung a trap which although admittedly exciting only lasted a few pages. The 1971 film was also leisurely-paced. This new remake tends to dial up and dial back at random its rate for the whole of its three hours, which is jarring. The characters have a tendency to break into passages that sound directly paraphrased from the encyclopedia: "Messenger Theory? Well, first proposed in 1951, it..." and so on.

A new subplot involving ocean-vent mining, and the on-camera presence of an actor playing a loose stand-in for President Bush, adds nothing to the overall tension, and adds a lot of slack time to the movie. That's also true of McCormack's storyline as a cokehead reporter who moronically travels to the edge of the infection zone. It's possible Andromeda might have made it as a credible two-hour movie, but having watched the miniseries version I don't know how a viewer would deal with fewer breaks from Benjamin Bratt's wooden lead performance.

Will technology in the future bring us giant robots to fight evil, alien plagues sent back by our future selves because bacteria that only live in the deep sea and feed on sulfur have become extinct in Earth's future and are needed to beat the plagues, or both? To find out, just continue living.

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