Wednesday, November 05, 2008

RIP Michael Crichton

By the early 90s, the novelist and filmmaker was indeed "The Hit Man", but I preferred him more toward the start of his career, when good, sober-minded books like The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man yielded good, sober-minded movies. Later, conservative-cranky potboilers including Rising Sun and Disclosure made for flashy, forgettable films, but such is the career of a "hit man," whose multimillion deals received more awestruck notices than his bestsellers. By then, I wasn't reading him much: The gap between his ideas and his storytelling had grown precipitously over the years, and while the books are harder-edged Jurassic Park and The Lost World are infinitely better experienced on the screen than on the page.

When it was narrower, however, the results were thought-provoking entertainment. He became a filmmaker himself and scored a hit with his first theatrical feature, the delightful Westworld (1973), a pre-Jurassic Park highlighted by Yul Brynner's pre-Terminator android take on his iconic Magnificent Seven gunslinger. (I think it was Westworld, which tickled me at an impressionable age when I had just been to Disney World for the first time, that gave him his foothold in the Western movie pantheon.) He brought his medical training to bear on 1978's creepy Coma, improving on Robin Cook's novel, and giving Genevieve Bujold a memorably plucky heroine part. 1979's The Great Train Robbery was a successful switch to period, and a favorite con-man picture of mine, with Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley-Anne Down deft in the leads.

Too much California sun, or an overactive eye for the ladies (he was married five times), gave 1981's models-in-jeopardy scenario Looker a distinct squint--the ideas-to-execution ratio was really out of whack, zooming toward camp, but it amused me and my high school friends when it reached cable. 1984's Runaway is a watchably silly sci-fi concoction with Gene Simmons commanding killer "robot spiders," exasperating future cop Tom Selleck. These technology-run-amuck scripts lack conviction, and afterwards he was pretty much content to farm out the adaptations to others. A return to his roots, via ER, proved massively successful, and gave the hit man a hit that is only now just winding down. His assassin-in-training days were for me his best and most influential, however, though his fertile mind and prolific pen offered something for everyone.

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