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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The Andromeda scribe (1942-2008)

The irony of Michael Crichton’s career is that he made his name by leveraging ghis considerable scientific knowledge to scare the bejeesus out of us—and in the end he became something of a crusader against, well, people leveraging scientific information to scare the bejeesus out of us.

The final irony is that the Chicago-born Crichton died on the very day that the United States elected its first president (Al Gore’s eight years as Vice-President notwithstanding) to have committed to tackling the challenge of man-made global warming, an issue that Crichton considered to have more to do with politics than objective science.

What most of us will remember about Michael Crichton is his page-turner novels. Even before they were adapted into movies, readers were held on the edge of their reading chairs by books like The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man, Jurassic Park and Disclosure. Before those, he had already turned out a number of books under the pen names John Lange and Jeffery Hudson. Crichton’s biography provides delicious vicarious vindication for every aspiring writer who has had his writing style criticized by a teacher. Because of negative feedback from a professor at Harvard, he changed his major from English to anthropology. Wouldn’t you like to have been at the (probably non-existent) cocktail party where the professor ran into his former student? Anyway, Crichton went on to become a doctor, writing books to pay his tuition. As his writing became more and more successful, he noted later in an interview, he ended up continuing his medical education mainly to provide himself with ideas and supporting detail for his books.

When the Andromeda Strain (about a lethal alien organism that threatens to wipe out humanity) was adapted for a 1971 movie directed by Robert Wise, it became the new prototype for suspense thrillers that were driven by a relentlessly inexorable timer counting down to zero—and disaster. The next year another novel, A Case of Need, was adapted for a Blake Edwards movie called The Carey Treatment, starring James Coburn. Another medical thriller, it provocatively dealt with an apparently botched abortion. The next year Crichton broke into directing for the big screen with Westworld, a thriller that featured Yul Brynner as a robot cowboy and traded on his iconic image from The Magnificent Seven. It also foresaw the notion of virtual reality as entertainment. Crichton would, of course, later revisit the theme of scientifically created theme parks.

Crichton would go on to direct five other movies: Coma, another medical thriller but based on a novel by another author (Robin Cook); The First Great Train Robbery (starring Sean Connery); Looker (with Albert Finney and James Coburn), about plastic surgery and murder; Runaway (with Tom Selleck and Kirstie Alley), about killer robots; and Physical Evidence (with Burt Reynolds and Theresa Russell), a murder mystery/thriller. It is probably safe to say that adaptations of Crichton’s novels (Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, Philip Kaufman’s Rising Sun, Barry Levinson’s Disclosure, Frank Marshall’s Congo, Levinson’s Sphere, John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior, Richard Donner’s Timeline) and screenplays (Jan de Bont’s Twister), which were directed by others, fared better.

In addition to all these books and movies, there is at least one other significant contribution that Crichton made to our popular culture. If people have unrealistic expectations about the concern and caring and abilities of the doctors (or whether they look like George Clooney) they encounter in their local hospital’s emergency room, then they can blame Crichton, at least indirectly. In the early 1970s he wrote a script for a movie to be called Emergency Ward. He never managed to get it produced but a couple decades after it was written, it was picked up for a television series. Somehow, after 15 seasons, ER somehow still seems to be on the air.

Given all the years that Crichton spent scaring us with dire potential scenarios in the world of science and medicine, the topic of global warming and environmental disaster would have seemed to be right up his alley. And he did take up the theme in a novel, but not in the way that most of us would have expected. In his 2004 novel State of Fear, environmentalists were the bad guys. They are portrayed as ranging from political groups using the threat of global warming to push specific radical political agendas to outright terrorists. They are aided and abetted by scientists who exaggerate the problems of climate change for the sake of securing more government funding. The year before the book appeared, Crichton enunciated his ideas on the subject in a famous speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Its theme was Crichton’s assertion that environmentalism had essentially become a religion. Calling environmentalism “a religion of choice for atheists” and saying that it “is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths,” reflected in the concept of a natural state of grace and man’s deviation from it. He continued, “[T]he tenets of environmentalism are all about belief. It’s about whether you are going to be a sinner, or saved. Whether you are going to be one of the people on the side of salvation, or on the side of doom. Whether you are going to be one of us, or one of them.”

But Crichton did not deny that the earth was warming. He was merely insisting that it is difficult to predict trends very far into the future. Nor did he argue that the environment should not be protected. “We need an environmental movement,” asserted the author, “and such a movement is not very effective if it is conducted as a religion.” He added, “To mix environmental concerns with the frantic fantasies that people have about one political party or another is to miss the cold truth—that there is very little difference between the parties, except a difference in pandering rhetoric. The effort to promote effective legislation for the environment is not helped by thinking that the Democrats will save us and the Republicans won’t.” He noted, by way of examples, that Lyndon Johnson had allowed oil drilling off Santa Barbara and that Richard Nixon had created the Environmental Protection Agency. Needless to say, Crichton’s views were met with howls. But they are about to get a test. With Democrats pretty much running the whole show in Washington, it will be interesting to see how much things really change in terms of environmental policy.

Meanwhile, Michael Crichton isn’t quite finished entertaining us, at least by proxy. The IMDB lists a remake of Westworld and a third Jurassic Park sequel in the works.

-S.L., 13 November 2008

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