Sunday, November 9, 2008

Remembering Michael Crichton

Remembering Michael Crichton
Nov 5, 2008
by Gary Susman

Categories: Books, Film, In Memoriam, Television

There's a line between our awe of science and technology, with all the possibilities they offer us, and our fear of same, that the sense of control they offer is a lethal illusion. Few authors made that line their own as skillfully -- and as profitably -- as Michael Crichton. The author/screenwriter/director, who died Tuesday at age 66, had a knack for finding and exploring hot-button issues in his techno-thrillers -- sexual harassment (Disclosure), epidemiology (The Andromeda Strain), airline safety (Airframe), the importation of Japanese business culture to the U.S. (Rising Sun), nanotechnology (Prey), global warming (State of Fear), and of course, genetic engineering (Jurassic Park, The Lost World, and Next). But he did so in a savvy, populist way by using these complex issues as McGuffins for flashy, genre-plotted novels and movies. This was true ever since he abandoned his medical career for fiction, starting with his first book, A Case of Need (1968), a mystery novel that was really a way of addressing the issue of abortion, just a few years before Roe vs. Wade. Crichton considered himself an a storyteller, not an educator or polemicist ("What I do is entertain people," he told EW in 1994, comparing himself to Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, masters of narrative only later inducted into the literary canon), but he still wanted you to learn something, and he was adept at sneaking the spinach in there with the cotton candy.

Crichton's frequent message, that the mixture of science and arrogance will get us into trouble, is as old as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but Crichton managed to play both sides of the street. His tales are frequently about puzzle-solving, with his characters forced to use their ingenuity to get out of messes that ingenuity got them into. His attention to detail and verisimilitude made applied science look dangerous but tremendously cool -- think of the androids in Westworld, the virtual reality simulation in the big-screen version of Disclosure, the tornado chasers in Twister, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (awe-inspiring at first, and then terrifying), and even the 19th-century cleverness involved in pulling off The Great Train Robbery.

Crichton's critics often complained that his lavish attention to cool toys, gleaming surfaces, and scientific detail came at the expense of fully fleshed characters. It's often forgotten that, in addition to his wildly successful literary endeavors, Crichton had a long career as a Hollywood director as well (Westworld, Coma, The Great Train Robbery, Looker), and indeed, his later novels often read like he's already been casting the movie in his head. Which is why his greatest creation, actually, may be TV's ER. (Sorry, Jurassic Park fans.) It started out as a film script he wrote when he was still making the transition from doctor to writer. It collected dust for a quarter century before being adapted into a TV series that's now in its 15th season. Like other Crichton subjects, ER itself has mutated in ways its creator probably did not anticipate. And like most Crichton works, it's about the limits of technology, where humanity is forced to kick in once applied science (in this case, medicine) has done all it can. It's about great storytelling, sure, but it's also about trying to solve ethical dilemmas that are bound to occur when human potential runs up against human nature, or just plain Nature itself.

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