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.