- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

Michael Crichton’s death in November, soon after his 66th birthday, seemed an untimely departure in at least two respects. It would have been preferable to contemplate Mr. Crichton alive and productive during the final season of “ER,” the estimable medical series that he conceived and helped launch 15 years earlier. And he was still needed as an authoritative, crusading source of resistance to the global-warming lobby, whose propagandists were looking more vulnerable.

I met Michael Crichton about 30 years earlier, when he was on a promotional tour for “Coma,” the second theatrical feature he had written and directed. He proved a likable interview subject, and I think I also liked the fact that we were just months apart in age and that he promised to be the tallest director (at 6 feet 9 inches) Hollywood had seen in many years.

At that point, Mr. Crichton loomed as the enviable case who might be expected to transpose his own popular fiction to the screen repeatedly. The prospect looked feasible at the end of the 1970s, since “Coma” was a more confident movie thriller than his first feature, “Westworld,” released five years earlier. He was preparing to direct a third, his own adaptation of his recent best-seller “The Great Train Robbery,” a mid-Victorian caper melodrama that had the makings of a glamorous entertainment.

Still a recent graduate of Harvard Medical School at the close of the 1960s, Mr. Crichton was a welcome visitor on the set while Robert Wise was directing the 1971 movie version of “The Andromeda Strain,” the clever science-fiction thriller that introduced Mr. Crichton to the reading public under his own name — and with a thematic specialty that became distinctive.

While a student, he had written pulp crime fiction under a trio of aliases, including Michael Douglas, a collaboration with his younger brother Douglas. Michael Douglas the actor was destined to have leading roles in both “Coma” and Barry Levinson’s movie version of Mr. Crichton ingenious reversal of the sexual harassment topic, “Disclosure.”

The notion that Mr. Crichton might try his own hand at filmmaking began to insinuate itself while observing Mr. Wise. He directed a TV movie called “Pursuit” (derived from one of his own books, “Binary”) and then the diverting and ominous “Westworld.” A modest hit of 1973, when most hits were on the modest side, it was also his first original screenplay.

Set at a luxury amusement park called Delos, where customers were invited to play make-believe libertines in three settings — Roman, medieval and Western — the movie reinforced the cautionary, humorously threatening methodology of “Andromeda.” Mr. Crichton became a specialist at dystopian adventure melodramas in which ostensibly innovative and secure settings go haywire, transforming state-of-the-art testing grounds or playgrounds into deathtraps.

Mr. Crichton demonstrated how defective and unreliable state-of-the-art could prove and that cutting-edge was capable of biting your head off — majestically when he got around to envisioning the restored prehistoric beasts of “Jurassic Park,” his most satisfying brainstorm.

Without knowing it, Michael Crichton may also have invented the metrosexual in “Westworld.” Specifically, in the scene where Richard Benjamin, as a greenhorn guest from Chicago, places the following drink order with the park’s frontier bartender: “Vodka martini on the rocks with a twist of lemon.”

The ascending line of proficiency behind the camera and in the editing room from “Westworld” to “Coma” didn’t continue to improve. Mr. Crichton’s learning curve, which seemed exceptionally promising as “Coma” raced toward a cliffhanging denouement and then faded with an admirable cinematic flourish, seemed to flatten out as “The Great Train Robbery” left more to be desired than savored.

During the 1980s, Mr. Crichton seemed to misplace his directing promise irretrievably, backsliding to the vicinity of Square One as “Looker,” “Runaway” and “Physical Evidence” piled up. The next decade returned him to a position of prominence as an originator of exploitable pretexts for blockbusters with “Jurassic Park,” “Disclosure” and “Twister.” Simultaneously, “ER” (Mr. Crichton wrote the first three episodes) set an impressive example for topical melodrama on television. At one point, in December 1993, he was credited with a pop-culture hat trick: author of the year’s most popular movie, “Jurassic Park,” as well as the most popular new TV series, “ER,” and the No. 1 paperback best-seller, “Disclosure.”

Not that everything was rosy in the ‘90s. There were Crichton best-sellers that seemed to defy satisfying movie adaptation: “Congo,” “Sphere” and “Rising Sun.”

A return to “Westworld” and “Coma” confirms that Mr. Crichton had a flair for directing. It just didn’t portend a sustained position of strength in Hollywood over the past generation. He might have had the last word on every aspect of his books’ realization as movies, commanding the process from first draft to final cut. Maybe nobody should have it that good.

TITLE: “Westworld”

RATING: PG (Occasional violence and sexual innuendo)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Michael Crichton. Cinematography by Gene Polito.

RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes

DVD EDITION: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.warnervideo.com

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TITLE: “Coma”

RATING: PG (Occasional violence and sustained ominous elements; fleeting nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Michael Crichton. Screenplay by Mr. Crichton, from the novel by Robin Cook. Cinematography by Victor J. Kemper, with additional photography by Gerald Hirschfeld.

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes

DVD EDITION: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

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