Michael Crichton’s pre-dinosaur films
Michael Crichton has always been serious to a fault — there may not be one actual joke in his entire body of work — so it’s ironic that his 1992 novel Rising Sun may mark the first time he was taken seriously. Instead of bringing his ponderous, page-turning style to bear on robots or dinosaurs, Crichton delivered a here-and-now screed that some saw as Japan bashing, others as needful warning, and most as a good read. In the process, he reinvented himself as a finger-wagging social commentator: the Jeremiah of the best-seller lists. His much-awaited next novel (called Disclosure and due in January) is about sexual harassment, and it will be Thought Provoking.
Philip Kaufman doesn’t buy the pose, though. The director’s film version of Rising Sun downplays the novel’s xenophobia not because it’s controversial, but because it gets in the way of a pretty decent thriller. In fact, Kaufman does Crichton a huge favor by chucking the weighty pronouncements and concentrating on honest pulp.
It’s a favor Crichton rarely did himself in the films he made after his writing success opened Hollywood’s door. Overall, the movies on which he has served as a prime mover — either as novel source, screenwriter, director, or all three — are a solid bunch that magnify the strengths and weaknesses of his books at the same time they rather cruelly expose his reliance on formula.
It didn’t seem like a formula at the time of The Andromeda Strain, the Robert Wise film closely based on Crichton’s first hit novel. A sci-fi suspenser in which a group of anonymous scientists studying bacteria from outer space fall prey to bureaucracy and panic, Strain is a little too long and a little too obvious. Still, the cool-geek seriousness with which it takes the medical mystery at its core remains impressive. If you saw this when you were a kid, you remember it as neat.
Westworld was neater still: a creepy, crawly saga about a futuristic theme park where robots go berserk and start killing the guests (hey, change the robots to dinosaurs and you might have something). Crichton’s big-screen scripting and directing debut gave his no-frills writing style its visual corollary: He’s a storyteller, not a stylist. While that keeps Westworld in Outer Limits territory, it also steers it clear of pretension.
Coma found the novelist, with new confidence, back behind the camera after a five-year hiatus, adapting and directing Robin Cook’s best-seller about hospital horrors. With a strong heroine (something he rarely provides in his own writing) played with nervy impatience by Genevieve Bujold, Coma may be Crichton’s best, tightest movie. There certainly isn’t any stentoria in the dialogue about the evils of tampering with technology: For once, Crichton shows rather than tells.
The Great Train Robbery continued the winning streak in an unexpected direction. Crichton’s least typical film is a caper comedy about two raffish crooks (Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland) who team up in 1855 London to heist army gold off a moving locomotive. While Robbery fizzles at the end, its puckish tone is a hoot, and Crichton’s affection for the past seems genuine.
And why not? For him, the future is a dismal proving ground where technology runs head-on into humanity’s shortsightedness. Crichton’s last two films as a writer-director — 1981’s Looker and 1984’s Runaway — start with savvy concepts (televised mind control and man’s reliance on robots, respectively) and quickly devolve into sour, overwritten diatribes. In the process, they fall apart as thrillers: Looker leaves Albert Finney floundering in a sea of illogic, and Runaway pits a low-key Tom Selleck against an astoundingly campy villain played by Gene Simmons of Kiss.
By now, the formula was cast in cement: Take an innocent (Selleck, Finney, Bujold), or a handful of lab rats (Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park), or both (Westworld). Allow their belief in the shiny scientific frontier to get trashed by events. Alternate warning-gong speeches with straightforward thriller stuff in which the heroes battle a soulless killing machine of their own making. Sometimes it’s a computer. Sometimes it’s a T. rex.
In Rising Sun, it’s the Japanese. Still, the movie’s not quite as jingoistic as protesters would have you believe. As two L.A. cops — naive Web Smith (Wesley Snipes) and Zen master John Connor (Sean Connery) — investigate the murder of a party girl in the boardroom of the Nakamura Corporation, they run up against Japanese who are portrayed as smart, cold-blooded, classy masters of strategy. Stereotypes? You bet, but at least not the buck-toothed monkeys of World War II flicks. Connor admires them and finds them worthy opponents; so, by extension, does Crichton. For both, the true bad guys are lazy Americans like the video-lab proprietor who has sold his business to the Japanese so he’ll have more time for ”fun.”
In the novel, Crichton’s disapproval was made explicit in endless monologues about Japanese might and American decadence. Kaufman throws all that out and focuses on character and action — not a bad idea for a movie. Granted, Rising Sun is hobbled by some hokey aspects: Its view of women is strictly comic book, and Kaufman uses a silly Get Smart-style wipe to cut between scenes. He finds the trashy pulse of the story, though. That’s something that Crichton has often lost sight of, up there on his Mount. Rising Sun: B, The Andromeda Strain: B, Westworld: B, Coma: B+, The Great Train Robbery: B+, Looker: D, Runaway: D+