Michael Crichton, novelist and filmmaker, best known these days as the creator of E.R. and the author who started the whole Jurassic Park thing, died on November 4th of cancer at the age of 66. His novels were best selling works of popular fiction, researched and smartly written, usually cautionary tales about new technologies. Several of his novels have been adapted to varying degrees of success.
The best of them is Andromeda Strain about an underground science team dealing with a killer plague brought back to earth by a space probe. Both book (1968) and film (1971) have a verisimilitude that makes it seem plausible and thus rather gripping. Special mention also to the 1974 adaptation of Terminal Man, an underrated technothriller about a man hooked up to a computer to control his violent seizures but instead being elevated to psychopath.
His only book he adapted himself is The Great Train Robbery. Filmed as The First Great Train Robbery in '79 this is a charming rogues adventure with Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland. It is Crichton's best work as director though the year previously he directed Coma which still is remembered as one of the better thrillers of the '70s and one of the times his background as a medical doctor would be handy.
Crichton also directed Looker (1981), about a cosmetic surgeon discovering evil advertising companies disposing of models and replacing them with computer reconstructions, and Runaway (1984), about cops dealing with out of control robots and the madman behind it all. Both have dated terribly, but it adds to their charm, especially Runaway with clockwork nasties and a leering Gene Simmons.
But Michael Crichton's legacy to popular culture largely comes down to one film. In 1973 he wrote and directed Westworld. Set in Delos, an amusement park made up of RomanWorld, MedievalWorld and WesternWorld, robots - indistinguishable from humans except their finger joints - are meant to please and entertain their guests but predictably go on a killing rampage. You may have seen the episode of The Simpsons about that.
The cool part of the film was watching Yul Brynner as a robot cowboy (clearly reminiscent of his Magnificent Seven persona) going terminator on Richard Benjamin's arse. Superior to Spielberg's "Westworld with dinosaurs", Crichton's resourceful use of a low budget succeeded in bringing all the elements together to make this a classic sci-fi flick and worthy of cult status.
Okay, I think it has to be admitted that Crichton could get a bit silly - like with Sphere and Congo - and there is no single work of brilliance in his books or films, but by putting Andromeda Strain, Westworld, Jurassic Park, E.R. and even Twister out there into the culture, his contribution is undeniable. So though some harsher critics might dismiss him I'll certainly raise my test-tube of peppered schnapps to Michael Crichton for some easy reading, easy watching, for putting some neat science ideas into our fiction and for the moment a robot Brynner stood up without a face.