Thursday, June 2, 2016

Now I've Seen Everything Dept.: Michael Crichton

Doctored Images

The list of movies based on the novels of John Michael Crichton is impressive—The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park (all parts), Congo, Disclosure, Timeline, Rising Sun (I like to call it "Rising Sean"), Sphere, The Terminal successful as the novels were on the Best Sellers lists, there are not a lot of "hit movies" there for a "hit-maker." The truth is, Crichton was a "must-read" author (whichever psuedonym he wrote under--Jeffrey Hudson, John Lange, or Michael Douglas) that did "okay" in other media, up until Jurassic Park—and Crichton's partnership with Steven Spielberg and Amblin to create the television series "E.R."—catapulted him into the job where he was most successful—as a producer/creator.* Crichton had a knack for conceptualizing great ideas, but he wasn't always good making compelling drama out of them—noticeably, in characterization.  His geeks, techs, and Ph.d.'s were always a little dull, to the point where, reading Crichton, you would struggle remembering the characters in the book. It would take others to make his novels breathe and "matter" on dramatic levels beyond concerns about science and sociology. 

In between, after his association with the filming of The Andromeda Strain, Crichton began angling for working in the movies, which he achieved fairly quickly and efficiently. But despite having created a library of viable projects, Crichton rarely adapted his own work, only directing two of his novels (and doing producorial tinkering on another), adapting other ideas that seemed less suited for fleshing out in novel form. His directing career has an odd look to it:after his initial success, he worked on B-films with limited budgets and "pulp-ish," exploitative themes, with interchangeable characters, who seemed to be more "jobs" than people.  As his literary career advanced to more complicated scenarios, his film career took the opposite tack, devolving into the pulp field in which he started his writing.

Crichton died of lymphoma on November 8, 2008. He was 66.

Pursuit (1972) An ABC "Movie of the Week," late edition,* which Crichton directed from his own novel (entitled "Binary," written under the nom-de-plume John Lange) about far-right radicals (played by E.G. Marshall and Martin Sheen) attempting to kill the sitting President at the Republican convention for his dealings with Communist countries.  Three federal agents (Ben Gazzara, William Windom, and Jim McMullan) trace their activities to an apartment where two canisters of gas are contained and equipped with a timer and booby-traps.  Analysis reveals that the two gases are harmless separately, but when combined are a deadly nerve gas that can wipe out San Diego.  How do they stop it in time...especially as the room is sealed with enough of the combined gas to kill whoever enters it.  A nifty trap, that.  And Crichton, in his first directing gig, manages to make a spare, taut little thriller, with a budget, long on casting and short on frills.  Pursuit also features a primitive score by Jerry Goldsmith, who would figure in quite a few Crichton films.

Westworld (1973) Crichton came up with the scrap of a story about immersive theme-parks with robots (ala Disneyland's audio-animatronics) and brought it to M-G-M (then being run—into the ground—by James Aubrey, Jr., who was busy turning the film studio into its own version of Casino-world). It's a cautionary tale of putting too much faith in technology as two buddies (James Brolin and Richard Benjamin) spend $1000 per day to go to the Delos Corporations' Westworld theme-park (there is also Roman World and Medieval World) where, among the activities are shoot-outs with a Gunslinger (Yul Brynner, straight out of The Magnificent Seven). A computer virus infects the facility and "things" start to get out of control (you can see the dinosaur bones of what would be Jurassic Park in the basic plot of the film). Crichton wrote about his experience directing the film in his published screenplay, and was quite honest in his frustrations dealing with a constantly shrinking budget and time constraints. But, despite the headaches, the film turned into one of M-G-M's few hits at the time. Westworld is a mildly amusing diversion and spawned a sequel—Futureworld—which the writer-director had nothing to do with and a TV series—Beyond Westworld—in 1980. that was cancelled after three airings. There have been frequent threats in the trades that a remake is in the works, but plans are now for it to be turned into an HBO series (adapted by Jonathan Nolan and his wife "Burn Notice" creator Lisa Joy) debuting in 2016.

It should also be noted that Westworld is the first movie to feature digital pixelization of previously filmed images (showing the robots POV).

Coma (1978) Crichton takes on a directing job from someone else's work, in this case Robin Cook, known for writing medical thrillers—something close to Crichton's experience as a medical student and internist (Crichton and Cook were acquaintances). Genevieve Bujold and Michael Douglas star as two surgical residents who stumble onto an odd epidemic—healthy young people entering the hospital are going into unexplained comas following surgeries, from which they never come out! They're shipped off to the Jefferson Institute for extended care. Bujold's character talks her way into a tour of the facility and finds that it's more of a warehouse for coma patients with no rooms, no beds, but is more of a low-cost suspended life support system for care of indeterminate length that is the stuff of medical nightmares (one of those patients is a pre-stardom Tom Selleck).

Her suspicions lead her to her hospital's chief of surgery (Richard Widmark) who becomes her ally in getting to the bottom of what is going on. Crichton's directorial hand is far more sure than it was in Westworld (he admits he was going for genre cliche with the earlier film), and the film is genuinely creepy and suspenseful.***

It was remade as a mini-series for A&E (by the Scott Brothers) in 2012.

The Great Train Robbery (aka The First Great Train Robbery, 1979) Nasty little version of the Crichton book, which takes on every detail of the book and its elaborate train heist...EXCEPT its tone. Crichton wrote his own adaptation for producer Dino DeLaurentiis and kept to his plot (based on "The Great Gold Robbery" of 1855) with much fictionalization going on. Sean Connery plays Edward Pierce, a larcenous gentleman who conspires with Robert Agar (Donald Sutherland), several Victorian low-lifes and his mistress, Miriam's (Leslie Anne-Down) to abscond with the contents of a diabolically complicated safe—they carry the gold that is intended for funding of the Crimean War. The plot involves several minor subterfuges as a prelude to the big score and that exercise takes on a "Mission: Impossible" tone as anything that might go wrong does, despite the group's elaborate planning.

The big difference between novel and film is dialog—there is an almost schoolboy emphasis on sex in a lot of the discussions, and the by-play between Pierce and Miriam fairly crackle with none too subtle innuendo. Connery can only do so much with this before it wears thin. Where Connery was invaluable was doing the actual stunts on top of the train during the climax, which look incredibly dangerous and sometimes threaten to lop his head off. This has a rollicking score by Jerry Goldsmith. This was the second-to-last film of famed British cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth.

Looker (1981) Albert Finney stars in a film about Society's quest for perfection and Industry's quest to exploit it to manipulate human beings. 

And it has some nudity, too.

Finney plays Dr. Larry Roberts, a successful Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who usually cuts and forgets, but who becomes suspicious when three of his former patients end up dead, having committed suicide. The victims either merely wanted to leave a beautiful corpse or something nefarious is going on. So Roberts follows up with another of his patients Cindy Fairmont (Susan Dey), which leads him to a research firm called Digital Matrix. The models had been using digital scans as benchmarks for the plastic surgeries to "perfect" their looks, but Roberts discovers that the scans are also being used to replace the models with digital replicas for commercials, making the women replaceable in the marketplace.

Twelve years later, CGI would be used to make fully believable dinosaurs for the movie adaptation of Crichton's Jurassic Park, and, eventually, to replace human actors in films, making Looker, if not a great film, at least prescient.

Runaway (1984) Tom Selleck, having seemingly come out of his Coma from 1978, plays Sgt. Jack Ramsey, a future-cop specializing in deactivating the latest electronic conveniences when they go astray—more of a "'bot squad" than a bomb squad. He faces his toughest challenge when a robot wipes out an entire family and he and his new partner (Cynthia Rhodes) are sent out to investigate what appears to be the first robot murder. Their investigation leads them to a cyber-sicko, Dr. Charles Luther (played by Gene Simmons of KISS), a former defense contractor who's making all types of mass-produced killer-bots smart enough to target individual humans and track them thermally. Even though he's a genius, he seems to have lost some of his crucial circuit templates to a former lover (Kristie Alley). Ramsey and his team start to become targets of Luther's attacks, some of which seem dangerous, and some of which just seem very silly. It doesn't hold very much interest, either as sci-fi or thriller. Features the first all-electronic score by Jerry Goldsmith. 

Physical Evidence (1989) Crichton's last directorial work is this courtroom mystery featuring Theresa Russell as a public defender, assigned to defend an ex-cop with anger issues (Burt Reynolds), accused of killing an informant he's had past dealings with. He's evasive with the truth, but she's determined to get to the bottom of the crime, despite the complications it causes in her personal life.

It's not a great film to go out on, although Reynolds rises to the occasion, at least treating the project with respect. Russell, however, comes off as being petulant and stilted. But, she's not the only one, a lot of the actors are over-the-top in this one (including, incredibly, Ned Beatty), as if there was an attempt to have as many suspects as possible, if "anger issues" was a prime component for a suspect. John Alonzo does fine camera work and it boasts a score (however lackluster) by Henry Mancini, but the film is a mis-fire, and, except for one instance, where Crichton stepped in to shepherd an adaptation of one of his novels, it would be the last work of Crichton as a film-maker.

The 13th Warrior (1999) The adaptation of Crichton's "Eaters of the Dead"**** was a project helmed by John McTiernan, but a ballooning budget and poor audience previews, caused the studio to fire McTiernan and hire the author (for whatever reason) to oversee re-shoots and post-production of the film in order to "save" it. The result was a name change from the books title to the less provocative The 13th Warrior, re-shoots, re-edits, and replacing Graeme Revell's score with one by Crichton's frequent collaborator, Jerry Goldsmith. Despite the latter efforts, the movie still performed poorly at the box-office and has garnered a reputation as a box-office "dud." 

The thing is, it's not bad, a gritty fish-out-of-water story as Antonio Banderas' Arab translator and ambassador (based on Ahmad ibn Fadlan) is taken captive by Vikings and roped into an adventure to save their village from "mist-warriors," the bestial and cannibalistic "wendol."  The characters are fairly well-distinguished from each other (something that can't often be said for Crichton) and the look and feel of it recalls what Peter Jackson produced for his "Middle Earth" movies. It does fall down slightly in the action department, despite the sword-play; it's just hard to determine who's fighting whom if it weren't for the costumes. Still, it's a cut above what passes for sword-and-sandals films these days.

* Crichton began writing while he was studying medicine and using the advances to pay for his education. He wrote under psuedonyms lest the medical bureaucracy he was studying within kick him out, and began using his own name with "The Andromeda Strain". Crichton also believed it was just as well. He would cite Dr. Jonas Salk telling him "you're a better writer than a doctor."

** The series of 1 1/2 to two hour TV-movies launched many TV-series concepts as well as the career of Steven Spielberg, when his "Duel" became one of the early popular "Movies of the Week."

*** When Crichton expressed nervousness about working with the British crew for The Great Train Robbery, cinematographer Unsworth suggested showing them a print of Coma, which immediately garnered some respect for the "yank" director.

**** Crichton's conceit in the story was to create a new version of "Beowulf," and, as he'd done with other novels, faked the references to convince that it was somehow real.

No comments:

Post a Comment