Author Michael Crichton (1942-2008) would be 80 today, had cancer not taken him prematurely several years ago. An irony there, for he was a medical doctor (he possessed an M.D. but never practiced) and a famous proponent of science, yet these availed nothing in the end. I’ve read and enjoyed many of Crichton’s books and many of the screen adaptations thereof, so I feel he certainly merits a nod, and more than a nod today.
As with many genre writers, Crichton’s premises and plots were far more admirable than his actual literary skill. Some, I imagine, will find such a remark an appalling heresy given the popular success of his works, but it really is incontrovertible, and it’s the case with many a super-successful modern scribe, including the likes of Stephen King, John Grisham, Dan Brown, etc, most of whom would admit the truth of it. If you asked them, are you a Poe, a Robert Louis Stevenson, an H.G. Wells?, and they would laugh and say no, not by a long way. For they aren’t. They just aren’t. And those are examples of accessible authors. That’s the lay of the modern publishing world. They crank stuff out — and Crichton cranked a LOT of stuff out. Just as quickly, I’ll have to pivot a little and also state that this is not to claim that such writing is to be dismissed. I choose my words carefully, and I began the paragraph by saying that I enjoyed Crichton’s writing. The difference is analogous to that which divides candy from cuisine and porn from poetry. I do not claim his writing is unintelligent. It takes great intelligence, lots of math and science, to make an amusement park ride. Crichton was a respected anthropologist and, as we said, a medical doctor. He had fundamental concepts of chemistry, biology and physics at his fingertips. And he was also interested in philosophy, managing to work questions of ethics and metaphysics into his fiction. But art is not just content, it is (or ought to be, I feel) above all, expression. The quality of expression is what makes literary art, and this is what the great majority of people seem not to appreciate. I only harp on it because culture of any complexity has been on the defensive for decades, never more than now, so it is worth making the distinction, when it is there to be made.
That said, here is a round up of Michael Crichton’s entertaining entertainments, many of which broke ground in major areas of contemporary pop culture:
The Andromeda Strain (1969 book, 1971 movie)
This was Crichton’s breakthrough bestseller, after just a few years of going at the writing trade professionally. (Interestingly, as a kid I’d read one of his other early efforts, a thriller called Zero Cool he wrote under the pen name John Lange. It was just one of those paperbacks you pick up at a yard sale.) Sales of the Andromeda Strain novel justified the production of a Hollywood movie a couple of years later, directed by none other than Robert Wise, with special effects by Douglas Trumbull of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The movie earned twice its budget and was popular enough that I was able to watch it in television airings as a kid more than once. It seems to me that later movies like George Romero’s The Crazies (1973) as well as things like Outbreak (1995), Contagion (2011), and Steven King’s The Stand all owe something to it, as a benchmark in the “latter day plague” subgenre (although Kazan’s Panic In the Streets is an even earlier example, dating from 1950). The Andromeda Strain has the added science fiction concept of the deadly microbe having been brought to earth by a space probe. It is extraterrestrial in origin and thus a harder nut for scientists to crack because it doesn’t behave as recognizable biology. The screen version, though I’ll gladly watch it anytime for nostalgic reasons, is oddly boring for such a popular thriller. After the initial spooky scenes of a town where almost everyone is dead, we spend most of the film watching a handful of scientists in an air-locked lab trying to work out an antidote, with lots and lots and LOTS of exposition and explanation about their methods. The saving grace is a top notch cast of character actors that includes James Olson, David Wayne, Arthur Hill, Kate Reid, and Paula Kelly. In 2008, A & E remade it as a mini-series featuring Law and Order‘s Benjamin Bratt and Viola Davis.
Such was Crichton’s clout ALREADY that he was allowed to direct the theatrical film of his solid screenplay Westworld. He had directed just once previously, a 1972 TV movie called Pursuit based on his suspense novel Binary, starring Ben Gazzara, E.G. Marshall, William Windom and Martin Sheen. I shouldn’t have to relate to you the premise of Westworld since the HBO TV series remake, which debuted in 2016, has proved such a popular phenomenon. But perhaps I won’t surprise you by saying I’m not a fan of the new one, and prefer the movie original with Richard Benjamin and Marcus Welby M.D.’s James Brolin, Yul Brynner playing a robot version of his Magnificent Seven character, and great supporting players like Steve Franken, Dick Van Patten, Star Trek‘s Majel Barrett, and Alan Oppenheimer. Naturally, the “theme park run amok” motif worked well for him, as he would revive it for Jurassic Park. The original Westworld has lots of humor, which I find lacking in the revived version, as well as lots of conceptual discipline which I feel the new one also lacks. AIP made a forgotten sequel in 1976 called Futureworld with Peter Fonda, Blythe Danner, Arthur Hill, Stuart Margolin, and Allen Ludden, with Brynner reprising his android gunslinger part. In 1980, there was an even more forgotten TV series called Beyond Westworld on CBS. It only lasted five episodes.
The Terminal Man (1972 novel, 1974 movie)
Though I was long aware of the novel, I never saw the movie until a few years ago. It’s directed by Mike Hodges, then best known for making Get Carter (1971) and Pulp (1974) with Michael Caine. The movie didn’t do well when it was released but I found it riveting. George Segal plays a guy who suffers from seizures and blackouts, so he consents to an experimental operation that counteracts the seizures with electric impulses. Unfortunately, his body quickly becomes addicted to the impulses, triggering his blackout episodes on a rolling basis rather than stopping them. And he becomes a Mr. Hyde style rampaging psychotic killer. It’s unsettling to see Segal, normally associated with comic roles, make this transformation, which is probably a turn off for audiences at the time, though it derives a lot of its potency from that very tension. The cast also includes Joan Hackett, Richard Dysart, Jill Clayburgh, and a pre-Hill Street Blues James B. Sikking.
Coma (1978 movie)
Crichton’s friend Robin Cook actually wrote the 1977 film this property was based on. Crichton then optioned it, and wrote and directed the film. A suspense thriller about evil doctors harvesting organs on a massive scale, it was a box office hit in its day. I find it fascinating that Crichton, a doctor and a scientist, was associated with so many projects whose theses were that we should fear and distrust medicine and science! But it might just be that these qualities have been endemic to the genre since time of Mary Shelley. It just makes better stories. What are you going to do, make movies about how great the operation went? That would be propaganda, not drama. A terrific cast in this one as well: young Michael Douglas, Geneviève Bujold, Richard Widmark, Elizabeth Ashley, Rip Torn, Philip Baker Hall, and young newcomers Ed Harris and Tom Selleck!
The Great Train Robbery (1975 novel, 1978 movie)
This is surely Crichton’s best non-science fiction, non-medical story, although it is nonetheless filled with his love of clockwork style procedure. It’s essentially a 19th century heist movie based on a real-life episode of the theft of a gold shipment from a moving train. Crichton wrote and directed the film, based on his novel. Sean Connery starred and did most of his own stunts (it’s hard not to link it to his then-recent appearance in Murder on the Orient Express. He spent a lot of time on choo-choos in the ’70s. Come to think of it, he always did. Think of those of great scenes battling Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love). Donald Sutherland and Lesley Ann Down costar. It has nothing to do with the eponymous 1903 film, but it’s a nice association. It’s just a nice, stylish caper film.
Jurassic Park (1990 novel, 1993 movie and sequels)
Well of course. After two decades of respectable success this is the franchise that made Crichton’s name a household word. The first movie has earned over a billion dollars, its sequels billions more. The movies have probably earned enough to build an ACTUAL Jurassic Park. I adore the original film (I ranked it fourth amongst Spielberg’s movies here, though I have some catching up to), and I usually watch it any time I come across it. The sequels are naturally all pretty egregious. The most recent one was just mortifying. But the first one was motion picture magic, evoking The Lost World, King Kong, every mad scientist movie, every “animals run-amok” movie, and exceeding them. Scarcely a hair out of place. More on it in these posts on Spielberg and Jeff Goldblum.
High praise for this long running television hit as well. It comes as apparent penance for things like Coma, though it was based on a screenplay Crichton had written earlier in 1974. It comes closer to autobiography than almost anything else he’d written. Interestingly, I don’t think it’s widely known that he and Spielberg were responsible for launching this series, as it’s not heavily branded with their names, as you might expect. As with most long-running tv shows, there is a dip in quality after the first few seasons. But the first seasons were magic and I’ve binged them several times. The combination of humor in a grim medical setting, and a heroic but human cast reminds me a bit of M*A*S*H. But it was also groundbreaking, notching up the realism of a genre that went all the way back to Men in White ,the previous high point of which been the terrific St. Elsewhere. The show was justifiably famed for its tracking shots, amazing single take scenes where highly choreographed chaos went down. BTW have you ever noticed that Noah Wylie’s character is named “John Carter”, the same as an Edgar Rice Burroughs hero?
My main criticism of the show, and not even strictly as a matter of parity but also of realism, is that for a scenario that takes place in Chicago, and in a hospital, there are not enough black people, Asians, Jews, or ethnic Europeans in the cast (yes, I know there was a Croatian, eventually. But I’d think in a Chicago hospital you’d see a lot more Poles, Czechs, Germans, and like that). It is absurdly WASPy, which is not too surprising given that it was originally written in 1974. And Crichton did tweak it a little, converting one character to a woman, and one to an African American. And naturally television being what it is, you probably wouldn’t have gotten much more than that even in the ’90s. But someday they’ll make a hospital show that looks like a hospital, and that show will contain many hues indeed. (Haha, don’t say Grey’s Anatomy, the people on THAT show are too beautiful!) As for the ER cast, I can’t list them all or I’d be typing all day, but in the first seasons my favorites were Clooney, William H. Macy and Sherry Stringfield. It’s a failing of mine, but I will never be able to unsee Anthony Edwards as a star of Revenge of the Nerds.
Rising Sun (1992 novel, 1993 movie)
Here in the interest of completion we include a downright TERRIBLE Crichton project. Thrillers of this sort may seem outside the Crichton wheelhouse, but pound for pound, he probably wrote more spy and crook things than sci fi yarns, it’s just that most of them remained obscure. Seems hard to imagine nowadays, but in the ’80s and early 90s, one of the bigger things going on in the media and pop culture was anti-JAPANESE paranoia. The fear was that America would be overtaken in the capitalist race for world supremacy by Japan’s superior culture of industry, discipline, and frankly, nationalism. Couple that with Asian stereotypes and you have a potent cup of jingoistic Hollywood bullshit. On top of it, all that stupid buddy cop partners action movie crap, here strutted by Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes. The film marks the downturn of the brilliant director Philip Kaufman, whose previous triumphs included the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Right Stuff (1983), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), and Henry and June (1990). Paranoia can be very effective in the cinema, but it’s not always a good look.
Congo (1980 novel, 1995 movie)
Much like Jurassic Park, I’ll watch this movie any time it’s on, and this despite the fact that it’s several notches more cheesy. People were revisiting B movies during this era, in things like Arachnophobia (1990), Tremors (1990), and the later Anaconda (1997), to say nothing of Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark pictures (which Kaufman had also worked on). Congo smashes together on a latter day King Solomon’s Mines concept (an ancient lost city in the jungle) with a primitive monster idea, a la The Lost World or Creature from the Black Lagoon — or for that matter, Jurassic Park. That old formula with a small party in a remote location getting slowly picked off by angry animals. In this case, it’s a colony of large, intelligent, homicidal gorillas! Science vies with greed in the battle for survival! But a great cast helps sell it, including Dylan Walsh, Laura Linney, Ernie Hudson, Tim Curry, Joe Don Baker, Bruce Campbell, John Hawkes and Stuart Pankin.
Twister (1996 movie)
The original concept for this popular movie came from a guy named Jeffrey Hilton, but the screenplay was co-written by Crichton and his then-wife, the horror star Anne-Marie Martin. I’m a huge disaster movie fan, and this popcorn movie about a bunch of storm chasers squarely owns its place as the second greatest tornado film after The Wizard of Oz. Ordinally, I am NOT a fan of the modern Hollywood trend of screenplays that attempt to wrap up the characters’ personal rifts at the same time they solve the external problems of the plot. It normally feels forced and inorganic and just embarrassing. We watched one that did this last night (Beast with Idris Elba). Even Jurassic Park suffers from that crap, its weakest aspect. For whatever reason, when I saw Twister I felt it pulled off the magic trick more seamlessly than most such attempts, although this might be because I was just out of film school, fresh from indoctrination into the usual dogma, at the time I first saw it. Or maybe it was just newer back then, hadn’t been shoved down our throats 10 million times. At any rate, Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton aren’t just rival storm chasers in this one but EXES. Gee, I wonder if circumstances will bring them together? That aside, it’s a highly entertaining ride, and a brilliant idea for an entertainment: bringing audiences along for the massive headrush of getting as close as possible to lethal tornadoes without croaking in the process. It’s one of the few areas of science where the brave, dashing heroes are meteorologists! Cary Elwes plays the requisite even more loathsome rival, and a young Philip-Seymour Hoffman has a supporting part. Two years previously Jan De Brunt had directed the similarly high concept Speed (1994), which I also admired for succeeding with a one-note theme park idea. I actually went to see that one in the cinema twice, but to put in perspective, it was the only movie playing in Montauk where I was staying at Edward Albee’s writers colony at the time. At any rate, at this writing Twister has earned nearly a half a billion dollars, and to be honest, I wouldn’t mind having one percent of that greenola, though, ya know, I’ve tried, and it’s HARD to write one dimensional characters.
Sphere (1987 novel, 1998 movie)
This cosmic foolishness was major at the time, though it scarcely broke even at the box office, succeeding neither with audiences nor critics. As for me, I usually mix it up in my head with The Abyss, which had come out about a decade earlier. I associate it with the decline of Barry Levinson, a genius film-maker on numerous occasions, as well as the decline of Dustin Hoffman, whose screen career has seemed truly at sea (forgive me) these past 40 years. Hoffman and Levinson had worked on Mamet’s Wag the Dog the previous year, and that had been a better use of everybody’s talents. Sphere is a cockamamie thing about some mysterious metal ball at the bottom of the ocean that makes strange things happen and drives the crew investigating it slowly insane. With Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Coyote, Lieve Shreiber, Queen Latifah and Huey Lewis in the cast. It’s just a big headache inducing noise about time travel, telekenesis and I don’t know what all, but it badly needed sorting out, and it makes me hyperventilate just thinking about it.
Sphere was hardly the last of Crichton’s projects. He wrote and was associated with many others, before and after these ones, but we thought we’d just hit the most notable ones today. As for what became of Crichton physically — stardust? harvested for organs? food for microbes? — we cannot say definitively. But the legacy of his imagination is greater in extent today than ever.