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Michael Crichton 1942 - 2008

Posted by Ty Burr  November 6, 2008 09:30 AM

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The novelist, screenwriter, and director is dead of cancer at 66. No longer will his 6'9" frame loom over the culture like an educated T. Rex. Without Crichton, no "Jurassic Park," "ER," and "Andromeda Strain." On the other hand, without him, no "Congo," "The Lost World," or "Disclosure." The films drawn from Crichton's work are a variable lot, and some of them are downright awful (including a few he directed himself, such as "Looker" and "Runaway"). The tension in any Crichton project was always between the high intelligence of the central concept and the lowdown pulp verve of the storytelling. Sometimes the pulp won. Sometimes that made for a better novel or movie. Other times, not so much.

But what a strange career the man had, from Harvard Medical School to the top of the book and movie charts to Hollywood blockbusters to odd best-selling jeremiads against Japanese businessmen and global warming activists. The consistent themes of his work are the consequences of man's own hubris and a thoroughgoing paranoia. Someone is always coming up with a brilliant notion in Crichton, and it always goes hideously kablooey. Bring dinosaurs back to life? Okay, but they'll escape and gobble you up. Organ transplants? Fine until the medical establishment starts harvesting them for profit. Robots? Forget about the robots: they'll shoot you down ("Westworld") or come after you with knives ("Runaway"). Plastic surgery, biotech implants, chasing tornadoes? All terrible, terrible ideas ("Looker," "The Terminal Man," "Twister").

After a while his highminded anxiety spilled over into social paranoias like Japanese economic competitiveness ("Rising Sun") and predatory women in the workplace ("Disclosure"), and the books and films became smaller and more shrill. Crichton's milieu, it turned out, was that of the what-if, not the what now?

In person, he was by all accounts a good and gracious man, and one absolutely driven to create. I'm not sure what the motor was, but impatience and impossibly high standards seemed to have played a part. This is a man who dropped his Harvard English major because the professors didn't like his writing; in other words, he was too good for them. Crichton wrote his first best-sellers under a pseudonym (two of them, actually) while getting his medical degree; he had seven out by the time he graduated. By then, he had also already served as a visiting fellow in Anthropology at Cambridge in England. The egghead credentials were part of the persona that developed over the decades: Crichton's work, even at its poppiest, had to be taken seriously because he was, you know, smarter than you.

At its best, his books and movies work precisely because of that tension between Harvard and Hollywood, between Crichton the academic wonk and Crichton the commercial player. "The Andromeda Strain" (novel 1969, movie 1971) was a bolt from the blue when it came out: a crackerjack suspense tale about a team of scientists on the track of a killer germ from outer space, the film grounded its B-movie premise with A-level science. It was also scary as hell. "Westworld" (1973), his first film as director, gave us Yul Brunner as a malfunctioning gunslinger cyborg -- an image for the ages, and one slated for an upcoming remake.

With "Terminal Man" (1974, directed by Mike Hodges) and "Coma" (1978), Crichton's limitations became apparent: his science-based seriousness blinded him to the inherent B-movie pleasures of his own plots. "Coma," in particular," seemed oblivious to the grand silliness of its central image, of comatose patients strung up in a warehouse by the dozens. (Although it did give us one of the goofier lines of dialogue in film history, when Genevieve Bujold breathlessly exclaims "Zey're pooting patients in a coma!")

Crichton stumbled through the 70s and 80s -- the standout is the atypical period heist film "The Great Train Robbery" (1979), an overlooked gem with a fine Sean Connery performance -- but relocated his mojo with "Jurassic Park," a project that delivered on one of the richest what-ifs imaginable: What if dinosaurs ruled the earth -- again? Steven Spielberg took the best-selling novel to glory on the screen, underscoring once again how Crichton's ideas needed a great director to realize them to their utmost.

The results live on as a four-star studio theme park ride, and it's no coincidence at all that "Jurassic Park" is in fact about a theme park; whether the writer intended it or not, the story works as a metaphor for the best-laid plans of the entertainment industry going deliciously awry. I'd like to think this wasn't an accident. Crichton was a paradox in action: a successful crank, a showman with graduate degrees, and a creative force who, when it all clicked, made us high on apocalypse.

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12 comments so far...
  1. Hey Ty - Just curious to know if you ever saw "Dealing:...", that early 70s dope-running movie adapted from the novel Crichton wrote with his brother. Debut of John Lithgow, as far as I know...very hard to find now.

    I never did, Flightkt -- I remember flipping through the book back in the day, but never saw the movie, as I was then (1972) much too young for such scurrilous hippie subjects. Too bad it's not on tape or DVD.

    Posted by flightjkt November 6, 08 01:07 PM
  1. The days after a mans death and all they could elaborate on was "their" inability to understand the mans career and mechanistics. In memorandum I would like to say that he was a goal driven man and his influence on me was positive and insightful. He should be honored as creative and highly tuned human being we should all strive to emulate within our own reaches of individuality, just as he exemplified. Oh and dont forget the book Sphere, the one that was also a hollywood blockbuster but explored the inner psyche and social interactions for and against us. Yeah dont forget that one. Rest in Power Mr. Chrichton!!!!!!

    Posted by somebody November 6, 08 02:05 PM
  1. I think (the original) "Andromeda Strain" movie was the best adaptation of a novel I've ever seen. Perfectly paced, very intelligent, and as Ty said, scary as hell. The feel of the movie was exactly what I imagined when I read the book; that is very rare.

    I always read Crichton's books, and most of the time I regretted it because of the mentioned pulpification of a great idea. I was always entertained though.

    RIP Dr. Crichton.

    Posted by Matt November 6, 08 02:59 PM
  1. What a vindictive article. Crichton was a genius and all the author can do is take pot shots at some of the movie adaptations of his book? He was a brilliant author, if you don't believe me read "Sphere", the book not the movie. His legacy is firmly established for future readers of fiction. In 100 years people will still know and read Crichton. The author of this hatchet job? He'll be forgotten along with the rest of the dinosaur old media in a New York minute.

    Posted by slim jim November 6, 08 03:22 PM
  1. This is a snide piece for a low talent person. Nobody cares about his movies or about your moronic reviews. I suspect you would like one onehundredth of his talent or success.

    Go back to watching Two D.bags make a Porno"

    Posted by David Owens November 6, 08 03:23 PM
  1. Michael Crichton was a genius and an inspiration to me. He engaged the reader in what seemingly was "real word" possibilities. He was one of a kind. The likes of which the world may never see again in our life time.

    I wish I had the chance to share a drink and talk with this legend. I am deeply saddened by his passing.

    Posted by Mike November 6, 08 03:27 PM
  1. I loved his books and movies (most of them.) Albeit, it was more of the stuff of latter years that I am familiar. I know he lived at least part time on Kauai. I too lived on Kauai up until 2005. I am sorry that I was too busy to make it to the Northshore on the Sundays he would have brunch in Princeville. I really wanted to meet him. I'm greatly saddened to hear of his passing.

    Posted by Angela of Kauai November 6, 08 03:41 PM
  1. Crichton was not responsible for "Coma" that would be Robin Cook

    Ty responds: Actually, you're partly right: Robin Cook wrote the original novel. Crichton wrote the screenplay and directed the film. Sorry for the mix-up.

    Posted by Don November 6, 08 04:26 PM
  1. I was privileged to interview Michael in 1971 at his high-rise apartment at Doheny and Sunset in the West Hollywood foothills. I was ghostwriting and doing celebrity interviews for the Chicago Tribune syndicate at the young age of 25 and at the time Michael was 27 and Andromedia Strain the movie was underway. In line with accounts, he was gracious and hospitable to me and generous with his time. Although at the time, I worked in the presence of the best and brightest people, and I could meet them at some intellectual level, I will never forget that I found Michael to be the most outrageously intelligent person I ever met from that day forward. It was truly a humbling experience. And although he could not help but appear a bit aloof, I am honored today to pay my great respects to such a great man, who was so courteous and generous even as my simple little interview in greater perspective must have been a bit of a waste of his time. He knew that but remained patient and courteous throughout. I later learned through Harvard folk that his family was known to all be of raging genius. Some 15 years ago I read that nothing was more important to Michael than being home with the wife he loved dearly. Now there was a great man. My deepest sympthy to his wife and family. With great respect and admiration I here pay my last respects. Rest in peace Michael, I so wish you hadn't been called back so soon. Maybe from above, you can inspire a like genius to discover a cure for cancer somewhere in the Andromedia Strain or genome.

    Posted by Barbara Scott November 6, 08 04:52 PM
  1. Unfortunately, Hollywood could never do his words justice. His books were too thrilling and imaginative for anything but the human imagination.

    Posted by bluecollargrunt November 6, 08 05:48 PM
  1. I was looking forward to his next project. As a whole I always enjoyed his books. Some people always criticize things they do not understand. I could have done that! but you didn't. So give the man credit for being the most creative and imaginative writers so he may rest in peace.

    Posted by kaiserfromm November 6, 08 06:32 PM
  1. I WAS a longtime fan of Michael. It was to bad to see him take his fame and go political (outright) and ruin what was otherwise a good book (State of Fear). Loved his writings but found his persona not so much.

    He was a very talented man. It is sad to lose him.

    Posted by David Blomberg November 6, 08 07:13 PM

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