Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Andromeda Strain (2008) Review

I watched the A&E remake of the Andromeda Strain the last two nights. At the end of the first night, I was actually excited that they would stay true (mostly) to the book and just have an updated version of the novel. By a half hour into the second night, I knew that I was going to be sorely disappointed. Once the "solution" was found and delivered, I was about to start wretching in my throat.

The first thing that caught my wife's attention was "Why do they always have hot scientists?" Well, Hollywood seems to believe that if you don't have sex in the movie then no one will watch it. I'll admit, the eye candy is nice, but in this movie completely unnecessary. To begin, the book had all of the major characters as male (related to the odd-man hypothesis). The 1971 version threw in a female, but she was frumpy so might as well have been a male. Next, I am amazed that Hollywood seems to portray all world reknowned scientists as 30 something. Let's be honest. We have had some young geniuses (Einstein was well known in his 20s). However, there are a lot more old scientists that would be better choices academically to study in the underground laboratory.

The cocaine snorting reporter confused me. I guess it was a plot choice to introduce some conflict. However, if we aren't going to allow smoking cigarettes in movies (or make the R), then why bother showing him snorting cocaine or the hippie girl smoking pot. It added nothing to the storyline, and only made a minor appearance that ended up not being a conflict at all (the Colonel was going to kill him no matter what). And how does an unarmed, handcuffed, druggie (who isn't currently high) overwhelm a fully armed, battle dressed (including kevlar helmet) soldier just by letting off the fire extinguisher and then hitting him a couple of times. Has someone done any experiments on stomping on the valve of a fire extinguisher and it coming off? I don't think it would happen from the first stomp (especially given his limited range of motion).

Hollywood is in love with nuclear reactors (even though they want to shut them all down). The computer diagrams of the laboratory showed the reactor offset from the main maintenance shaft of the compound. However, at the end when they entered the maintenance shaft, it sure looked like the familiar blue glow of irradiated fuel to me. Unfortunately, they don't go into a lot of details as to the workings of their reactor. They do say it will give you a dose of 5000-8000 rem (I think they mean dose rate 5000-8000 rem/hr). But they don't say at what distance this is. When the two people fall in they are dead within 5 minutes. Given that the lethal dose of 1000 rem will still take 24 -72 hours to kill you. We'll assume that they recieved a dose 10 times that in 5 minutes. That is approximately 100,000 rem/hr dose rate at the top of the cooling pool. Assuming Dr. Stone is 30 ft up, his dose rate would be 1000 rem/hr. So he probably got 100 rem for all the time he spent in the shaft. More than likely, that would put him in the hospital for a few days. I sure hope that all of the equipment has been radiation hardened, or we have some electronics primed for malfunction.

But, if we look closely, we could see that the water in the pool was bubbling. So maybe the people got cooked rather than dying of radiation. This then begs the question of how someone could stand in a boiling pool of water and not have a natural reaction to flinch. Of course if the pool was boiling, then the entire maintenance shaft would be filled with steam, and moisture would be condensing on all of the components, which eventually would reach 200 degrees fahrenheit and you wouldn't be able to grab on to anything. To say nothing of what your lungs would look like after breathing steam saturated air at 200 degrees.

How the reactor produces power is a mystery. Typically a boiling water reactor or a pressurized water reactor are at a much higher pressure than atmosphere (1000 psi-2000 psi vs 14 psi). Since the reactor appears to be at the bottom of a pool it is probably more similar to a research reactor that is found at many universities. Unfortunately, these tend to be a lot smaller (0.5 - 2 MW thermal) compared to a naval or power reactor (200 - 4500 MW thermal). Oh yeah, and they don't produce electricity. My guess, since they never talked about generators or steam turbines is that it is using thermovoltaics (like solar cells, except they convert heat into electricity). The problem with this is that since the reactor isn't pressurized, its not going to have a high temperature, therefore, the efficiency of the system will be extremely low. Also, since thermovoltaics involve high temperatures, we have to magically assume we have found a low temperature thermovoltaic material.

All of this is completely unneccessary as Crichton gave a perfectly good scenario for the odd-man (who doesn't need to die) climbing up the shaft which is guarded by dart guns (to get escaped animals). The woozy odd-man (having been hit with multiple darts) makes his way to the terminal and stops the detonation before passing out.

Finally, after all the Greenpeace propoganda, bashing of the oil industry, and moral dilemmas of the President we find the solution. A bacteria that lives in the thermal vents of the ocean floor and feeds on sulfur (which is the base component of Andromeda). Where do we begin to pick this apart?

First, the premise is that civilization has killed off this bacteria in the future because of our rape of natural resources on the ocean floor. Therefore, there is no cure for Andromeda in the future. (The Law of Unintended Consequences). They send Andromeda back to us through a worm hole with the clue to killing it (how they figured out how to kill it without the bacteria is unknown). The scientists do ask the question of what affect this bacteria would have on humans. The answer: none that we have found. Based on this we are going to pump thousands of gallons of an organism that lives on the ocean floor onto the surface of the earth. Isn't that the same short sighted thinking that supposedly got our civilization into this mess in the future to begin with. Did anyone bother to think about the onion crop (yes, sulfur is found in the foods we eat), how the bacteria might disrupt it (flavorless balls of skin), and the implications to the larger society (no more tex-mex, riots at Taco Bell)?

Personnally, I like Crichton's solution much better: We don't find out where it comes from and it naturally floats back up to the upper atmosphere, having mutated into a benign form (for now). I know it doesn't wrap up all of the loose ends, and we don't look like heroes at the end, but guess what. Sometimes we don't find the answer, no matter how much money (and hot scientists) we throw at things. The good thing about Crichton's ending is that we could have another encounter with Andromeda again (i.e. more money at the box office).

Second, the dispersion of the bacteria. It is grown in some big biologic reactors (beer making machines) and then pumped into some helicopters for dispersal. This is going to be fun. I wanted to calculate how much stuff they would need. To begin, the area they were spraying had to be large (the red andromeda was shown moving at a fairly good clip at the end). I made a conservative estimate of 50 miles by 50 miles (the town where the sheriff killed himself was 40 miles outside of the quarantine area). This gives a total area of 6.4 billion sq meters. I estimated coverage at 1 liter per 1000 sq meters (that is the equivalent of 2 drops per sq foot). This means they need 6.4 million liters. Assuming each tank was 50000 liters, they would need 128 of them (more than what was portrayed in the movie, but doable).

I assumed the helicopters to disperse the bacteria were Hueys. They have a payload capacity of 2000 kg (or 2000 liters). According to the movie, they were able to disperse all of this within 5 hours. A total of 3200 trips would be needed to disperse the 6.4 million gallons. If I assume that each trip takes 30 minutes, then 400 helicopters would be needed. I highly doubt that the US has 400 Hueys equipped with crop dusters.

If we change the numbers to be more realistic, the results become laughable. At 100 x 100 sq miles area, 4 drops per sq foot, 20 helicopters available, and 60 minutes a trip, they would need 1500+ biologic reactors and 106 days to cover everything. By that time, andromeda would have spread around the world and annihilated everything. Its a good thing Hollywood can bend the rules at will.

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