Part Seven: The Crichton Strain
One of the best films of 2013, Spike Jonze’s Her, concerns a man who falls in love with his computer’s operating system. It’s easy to imagine a film with a similar premise appearing in a different decade—extremely easy, actually—but it’s hard to imagine it taking the form it does in Her. Even factoring out Jonze’s unique imagination, and factoring in thoughtful exceptions like A.I. (and, well, Short Circuit), we’ve only recently become cozy enough with computers that stories of them becoming unexpectedly self-aware don’t automatically carry nightmarish implications. For years, the de facto story of technology with aspirations beyond its design parameters involved a breakthrough leading to disaster. You can have your super-intelligent computer or realer-than-real robots, but they come at a cost.
New technologies have always frightened some people. They probably always will, and in that respect, Her might prove more anomaly than new beginning. But for a while, technophobia had a favorite author who influenced virtually everyone trying to meld together cutting-edge science and popular fiction: Michael Crichton. It’s hard to know where cause ends and effect begins with Michael Crichton, whose books and movies exerted a powerful influence on science-fiction filmmaking. Undoubtedly, the screens of the 1970s would have contained killer computers and menacing robots without Crichton—2001’s HAL cast a long shadow—but Crichton’s work served as a catalyzing force, starting with the 1969 publication of The Andromeda Strain, which became a movie two years later.
Directed by Robert Wise in a clinical style not suggested by anything preceding it in his wildly varied filmography, the opening of The Andromeda Strain posits it as “the four-day history of a major American scientific crisis,” taken from “documents soon to be made public.” That crisis is set in motion by the arrival of the titular strain, a life-threatening microorganism brought back to Earth by a satellite, which instantly kills (or drives mad, then kills) almost everyone who comes into contact with it. As the film opens, the organism has wiped out everyone in the small town of Piedmont, New Mexico, except a 62-year-old man and an infant. Their reasons for surviving provide a key clue in unlocking Andromeda’s secret. Prior to The Andromeda Strain, Crichton specialized in mysteries, turning them out at a rapid clip in whatever precious downtime he could scrape together while studying at Harvard Medical School. The Andromeda Strain combines his medical and mystery skills to make what he called a “howdunit,” as played out by dedicated scientists trying to figure out what makes the Andromeda Strain work, and how they might shut it down before it’s too late.
Yet as the film goes on, it becomes less interested in the organism than in the human mechanisms put in place to contain it—and how those mechanisms might break down. After some harrowing scenes in the ruins of Piedmont, the action shifts to Wildfire Station, a secret, subterranean government base where four scientists attempt to stop the strain. (They’re all more or less interchangeable—a 1972 Time article described Crichton’s heroes as “value-neutral technicians”—though Arthur Hill’s Jeremy Stone emerges as the film’s leader, and one character has been turned from a man to a woman in the process of adaptation.) Their experiments force them through one layer of decontamination after another, and the film moves with them, going through cold, curved metal hallways painted in intense, unwelcoming primary colors. Along the way, they have to deal with frustrating computers that have trouble recognizing their voice prompts, and don’t know how to respond to sarcastic asides like “Yes, dear.”
Probes, recorded voices, and other automated systems surround them at all time, and the effects—by Douglas Trumbull of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running fame—and production design take early-1970s ideas of computers to their logical extreme. The Andromeda Strain is filled with blinking lights, primitive electronic graphics, green monochrome monitors, and banks of control panels, all whirring in service of some indecipherable pursuit. All this, and an electronic score by jazz musician Gil Mellé, suggest a place made by humans, but seemingly designed to create a completely inhospitable environment for humanity. They serve an important narrative purpose, but Wise’s shots of a crying infant alone in a metal room, unable to be touched by human hands, feel like they belong in a nightmarish experimental film.
In the end, as a recorded voice coldly counts down to self-destruction, the scientists have to battle the defenses of Wildfire, including some nasty lasers, to prevent a nuclear explosion that would not only kill everyone inside the base, but also spread Andromeda across the world. It’s the quintessential Crichton moment: After the film sets up the awesome potential of technology, then shows how that technology might go awry, it forces scrappy humans to overcome it using wit and grit.
That pattern—including the climactic moment—repeated itself in the 1973 film Westworld, which Crichton wrote and directed. Never satisfied after conquering one world, Crichton took up directing with the 1972 TV movie Pursuit, an experienced he described to Time as “like a drug high that went on for 12 days.”
Westworld is set seemingly five minutes into the future. A resort named Delos has revolutionized vacations for those who can afford its $1,000-a-day price tag. Once there, visitors can choose MedievalWorld, RomanWorld, or WestWorld, theme parks designed to evoke their respective eras, and populated by robots designed to simulate the citizens (and animals) of those eras. The film opens with some testimonials from visitors still buzzing from what they’ve just experienced, including one excitable fellow who says, “I shot six people!… Well, they weren’t really people.”
From there, the perspective shifts to two WestWorld-bound Delos visitors, John (James Brolin) and Pete (Richard Benjamin). John is making his return visit, and it’s unclear whether he always carries himself with a macho swagger, or whether he slips into the part when he enters WestWorld. Pete’s a first-timer, still smarting from a broken marriage and wearing the mustache of a sensitive 1970s guy. (At WestWorld’s saloon, he orders a “vodka martini on the rocks,” much to the barkeep’s dismay.) He needs a little motivation to slip into character, which John is happy to provide, encouraging him to act tough and pushing him into a confrontation with a tough-talking robot cowboy (Yul Brynner, in a part billed only as “Gunslinger”). Emboldened by winning his duel with the gunslinger, Pete gets into the spirit of the place, joining John on a visit to a house of ill repute staffed with robot prostitutes, a visit that seems to satisfy all their needs. It isn’t real, but it’s real enough to matter.
Meanwhile, the film plays its own games with reality. When in WestWorld, Crichton directs as if he’s helming a Western, borrowing liberally from the tropes and visual vocabulary of Westerns past. When Pete and John join a bar fight, it plays like the corniest bar fight ever put to film, complete with raucous fiddle music and familiar slapstick gags. The glimpses of RomanWorld and MedievalWorld are even more informed by Hollywood’s depictions of those periods. It’s an ingenious detail, highlighting how big-screen clichés seep into our fantasies, and our perception of history. That isn’t the only clever touch, either. The film keeps flipping back and forth between the vibrant theme-park kingdoms—think Disneyland, but with all the sex and violence adults crave—and the cold, virtually silent rooms in which scientists labor over control banks to keeps those fantasies operating. When WestWorld shuts down at night, the workers come out to re-dress the town. Any resemblance to a film set is surely coincidental.
It’s all almost clever enough to paper over some of the film’s sillier elements. Westworld’s robots can be recognized by their slightly inhuman-looking hands, a tell that suggests some curiously arbitrary limits on technology, given that the heroes’ satisfying visit to the brothel almost surely involved even more difficult-to-replicate body parts. There’s also the matter of the gunslinger, who returns as a seemingly unstoppable killing machine, while others, apparently of the same make and model, can be short-circuited by sips of water. Yet Brynner is such a frightening, forceful presence that it’s easy to forget such concerns. And while Westworld isn’t Blade Runner, it raises some curious questions about what it means to be human. If a machine can mimic all the responses and reactions of humanity, what sets it apart from humanity? As more and more robots short-circuit and turn against their makers—whether through violence or, in the instance of one comely MedievalWorld wench, “refusing a guest’s seduction”—the scientists at the controls struggle to figure out why, likening the spread of the problem to “an infectious disease process.” But maybe the robots are just tired of getting fucked and killed, and not having any say in the matter.
Once again, humans have invented machines without recognizing the design flaws that could turn against humanity. Yet calling Crichton a technophobe would be oversimplifying matters, since Crichton was clearly fascinated by technology and new scientific developments. It’s also tempting to imagine Crichton, having found a winning formula in early books, with a copy of Popular Science in one hand and a pen in the other, looking for potential fears to exploit.
The real story is a bit more complicated, however. That’s evident in the many books Crichton published that don’t follow that formula, in cinematic efforts like the 1979 adventure The Great Train Robbery, and in Crichton’s own life. In 1988, Crichton released Travels, a memoir structured loosely around his globetrotting adventures. It’s a frustrating book, in many respects. Crichton talks about his personal life and feelings, but with some obvious reluctance and often at a great remove, as if writing about a character he hasn’t fully figured out how to develop. He covers the places he visits with detail, but little depth. But a few themes recur. Crichton begins the book writing about his time as a medical student, which ended in frustration. He didn’t care for the way doctors protected each other by obscuring facts from patients, and he didn’t like the absence of bedside manner common to the “new physician scientist.” “I thought people were complex creatures,” he writes, “who sometimes manifested their problems in biochemical terms. But I thought it wiser to deal primarily with the people, not to deal primarily with the biochemistry.” He made it through med school with his teeth gritted, qualified to practice medicine, but disenchanted with the idea of treating patients as problems to be solved.
Crichton ends the book with several chapters on his experiences with the paranormal, which range from spoon-bending to channeling to an exorcism-like ceremony that removes a malevolent entity he’s carried with him since childhood. An experience visiting psychics in London made a believer out of Crichton, who explored the paranormal while his more scientifically minded friends scoffed. “Anyone with a scientific background who becomes interested in metaphysical things must find the example of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle disturbing,” Crichton notes, before detailing Doyle’s journey from physician to popular writer—shades of Crichton’s own life—to an easy mark for those who claimed contact with the beyond. And yet in he plunged.
That means the man who spent the latter portion of his career using science to argue against global warming also spent time talking to a cactus over the course of a New Age retreat. But really, both were part of the same instinct, consistent with a life spent rebelling against received wisdom. (And it’s worth noting that the same Crichton who ended his career aligned with causes dear to the right wing began it writing fiction on the side of legalized abortion.) The Crichton who emerges from the pages of Travels is one who hates the way systems squeeze out the human element, from the practices taught at Harvard to science that closes off the possibility of an unseen world. He understood science as well as anyone, but wanted there to be more to the world than what science had to offer, even if that meant chasing down some disreputable channels.
That matches up with his habit of telling stories that are fascinated with technology, but fearful of their potential. In The Terminal Man, a 1974 adaptation of Crichton’s 1972 novel, George Segal plays Harry Benson, a man transformed by a car accident that’s triggered a rare form of epilepsy, which makes him prone to violent outbursts and blackouts. As a last-ditch effort to reclaim his life, Benson agrees to subject himself to an experimental surgery that will correct his condition via electrodes. In other words, when a seizure begins, the wires in his brain redirect it. The condition has also led Benson, a researcher in artificial intelligence, to entertain paranoid fantasies including the “monumental discovery” that “machines were competing with human beings. And that ultimately machines would overtake the world.” They certainly overtake him: His body comes to desire the cure the electrodes deliver, inducing seizures to get the cure in a vicious cycle that ends badly.
The nightmare here is twofold: The idea that altering a body’s brain chemistry might fundamentally change a person’s personality, but also the idea that behavior might be controlled electronically. The implications of the cure are as frightening as the disease, and British director Mike Hodges (Get Carter, Croupier, Flash Gordon) treats them accordingly. The Terminal Man was Hodges’ first film in America, and he treats its L.A. setting as something of an alien landscape, a place of airless buildings and sparsely appointed apartments. It’s a cold film, made all the colder by Hodges’ fondness for symmetrical compositions, expressionless faces, and monochromatic sets and costumes. It feels half-machine already. Though the film never teases out the full scope of its premise, particularly once it hits a fairly standard action finale, it’s still the most elegant expression of Crichton’s 1970s worldview. In the midst of all this circuitry, will there be any room for the soul?
Onscreen, Crichton enjoyed two waves of popularity, the first stretching from The Andromeda Strain through 1984’s Runaway. The second began with Jurassic Park in 1993 and carried on unabated until Crichton’s 2008 death at age 66. The science-fiction films from that second half of the first wave found Crichton pursuing many of the same themes. In 1978, Crichton directed Coma, an adaptation of a medical thriller by Robin Cook, though the story seems like something he might have dreamed up himself. Genèvieve Bujold plays Dr. Susan Wheeler, a Boston surgery resident who stumbles on a scheme to send healthy patients into comas so their organs can be sold to the highest bidder. It’s a skillful adaptation, notable mostly for Bujold’s willful, no-nonsense, chauvinism-fighting protagonist—Crichton later shied away from strong women—and the remarkable image of comatose patients suspended in mid-air, alive but unfeeling. The premises that the market, itself a soulless system, has created this situation, and that numbers have led to this dehumanization, are pure Crichton as well.
That’s also evident in the Crichton-written-and-directed 1981 film Looker, in which Albert Finney stars as Larry Roberts, an L.A. plastic surgeon whose patients have a habit of getting killed. Well, not all his patients: just the gorgeous ones who come in asking for down-to-the-millimeter procedures. These surgeries turn out to be the demands of Digital Matrix, a sinister corporation owned by John Reston (James Coburn), whose scientists have constructed algorithms that understand the precise look and compositions to create the most effective visuals for commercials. Their latest project removes the human element entirely, making digital versions of the models they hire that can be posed in any position and made to say whatever they want, without any need for pesky human beings once the initial mapping of their bodies is completed. It’s yet another Crichton vision of tomorrow that reduces humanity to numbers. Inevitably, Digital Matrix starts disposing of its flesh-and-blood sources.
Digital Matrix has also developed the L.O.O.K.E.R., a gun that mesmerizes victims. It’s a ludicrous piece of technology that anticipates the not-so-awesome robots of Crichton’s 1984 film Runaway. Like Westworld, Runaway presents another near-future filled with robots. Unlike Westworld, they’re dumpy, unimpressive-looking things. It’s the job of police sergeant Jack Ramsay (Tom Selleck) to track them down, a job he’s pursued since a past investigation has left him, in what’s too obvious to not be a nod to Vertigo, with an unshakable fear of heights. In many ways, the mundaneness of Runaway’s robots works in the film’s favor, at least for a while. In the film’s world, blocky robots function as domestic servants and field hands. They’re one step up from washing machines, but so integrated into everyday life that their failure represents a real threat to those around them.
The film begins well enough, helped by stylish cinematography from John Alonzo, but falls apart as it goes along, particularly once Gene Simmons, in a truly dreadful performance, shows up as the bad guy, and Ramsay ends up fighting some not-so-threatening robot spiders that look like the product of a twisted Erector-set designer. Yet even when Crichton’s fantasies find their silliest forms, something about them remains tough to dismiss. We surround ourselves with systems designed to make life easier, and technology that purports to help us. And it does, mostly. But it’s all so new, and developments now happen so fast, that if it all went wrong, there’s no telling whether we’d be in any shape to crawl out from the wreckage or if, once toppled, we’d be crushed.
Next: More bad circuitry.