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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Crichton’

The reimagining of Westworld as a proper, mature, hide-granny’s-eyes TV series might, you would have thought, have ensured a little attention for the director of the original movie, but this has turned out not to be the case. Perhaps this is because the one of the creators of the new Westworld is Jonathan Nolan, a notable figure in his own right; perhaps the fact that Michael Crichton died nearly ten years ago may also be significant. Even so, it’s surely a shame – Crichton didn’t create the kind of books or films that get a lot of critical respect, but they’ve certainly had an impact on modern culture, and some of them were actually pretty good.

Of course, it helps if you have the right people involved, and in the history of film-making there have been few pairs of hands safer than that of Robert Wise, who directed the 1971 film version of Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain. It seems to me that some people dismiss Wise as just another studio journeyman, reliably knocking out the likes of The Sound of Music and West Side Story, but on their own terms, these are still exceptionally accomplished films. The Andromeda Strain was the second of Wise’s three SF movies, the others being The Day the Earth Stood Still and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (they are a peculiarly disparate trio).

The story opens with the team sent to retrieve a US satellite that has just returned to Earth discovering a silent, still small town in Arizona. Everyone there has dropped dead, apparently simultaneously – as the team discover in the very final moments of their own lives.

The government responds by activating a team of scientists prepared for just this contingency: the arrival on Earth of a lethal extraterrestrial pathogen. Two of them, Stone (Arthur Hill) and Hall (James Olson), venture into the dead town in spacesuits to locate the missing satellite, while Dutton (David Wayne) and Leavitt (Kate Read) proceed directly to the team’s secret facility beneath the Nevada desert.

Stone and Hall join them shortly, bringing with them two people who have inexplicably survived the alien pathogen – the town drunk and a small, understandably distressed child. Everyone proceeds to the lowest and most secure level of the base, while a strong recommendation is made that a nuclear weapon be used to obliterate the town and remove any chance of the infection spreading to more densely populated regions. Work gets underway on the process of locating, analysing, and neutralising the deadly agent, code-named Andromeda – the ultimate sanction being the presence in the base of another nuclear device, which will be used to sterilise the area if Andromeda shows any signs of escaping into the outside world…

When you watch The Andromeda Strain these days, you’re never very far away from a reminder that this is a film made in the early 1970s. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film; far from it. But it is one very much of its era. Partly this is reflected in the way it is filmed and edited: Wise reveals a fondness for split-screen effects, which were briefly modish in the late 60s and early 70s. Mostly, though, the film is simply very obviously part of a whole lineage of rather grim American films from this period, all concerned with technology and existential threats to human existence. It’s second cousin to The Forbin Project, for instance, sharing that film’s preoccupation with underground facilities and the dubious wisdom of putting computers in charge of nukes. But, as I said, virtually every major studio SF film of the early 1970s was at least a little bit dystopian, and The Andromeda Strain comes off this way too.

The odd thing is that this isn’t really because of the threat of the Andromeda life-form itself, but a consequence of the antiseptic and inhuman environment the characters have created to contain it. The Wildfire project does not seem like a fun place to work – everyone there is po-faced, to say the least (although, with the exception of Kate Reid’s character, the whole movie is notably humourless). There’s something oddly conflicted about a film which, on the one hand, spends a huge amount of time fetishising the technology on display in it – waldos, computers, scanners, laser guns, and so on – but at the same time is obviously fundamentally disquieted by all of this gleaming, inhuman power.

(As a side note, it also occurs to me that The Andromeda Strain – if not the movie, then certainly the book – was surely a key influence on the British TV show Doomwatch, which I wrote about recently. The Andromeda Strain is marginally more SF, but both deal with teams of experts attempting to tackle unusual scientific threats to human life, with the emphasis much more on ideas and science than on the characters as people. Stone’s initial declaration that the town must be isolated and destroyed to prevent Andromeda from spreading recalls one episode of Doomwatch, but the smoking gun, surely, comes when the alien organism mutates into a form which eats plastic, causing a jet which encounters it to disintegrate in mid-air – suffice to say, the first episode of Doomwatch was entitled The Plastic Eaters and features jet planes having similar in-flight difficulties.)

Was Michael Crichton trying to make a serious point when he wrote the original novel, or was he just going for maximum verisimilitude by adopting such a down-to-earth tone? It’s hard to say, but The Andromeda Strain takes itself very seriously, even for an early 1970s SF movie. Wise later spoke of it having an almost documentary quality, which is helped by the fact it is filled with obscure character actors rather than movie stars. You have to keep your mind on the job while you’re watching it, too, given so much of it takes the form of actors playing scientists talking very earnestly to each other about matters of methodology, procedure, and their various hypotheses.

That said, of course, they have to produce a suitably exciting climax from somewhere, and The Andromeda Strain manages it rather neatly – not only does Andromeda eat its way through the plastic filters sealing the lowest level of the base, starting the countdown on the bomb, but the team realise that life-form is so alien that the nuclear blast will just provide it with an energy source that will let it multiply and infest the whole planet. Much scrambling up ladders and dodging automated laser guns ensues, as a desperate attempt to disarm the nuke is undertaken. In retrospect all of this seems more than a little bit contrived, but it does result in a genuinely tense and exciting conclusion to the film.

Even so, it’s not exactly an upbeat ending – not only has the gleaming apparatus of the installation come up short in several respects, mostly due to human frailty, but Stone admits to a government enquiry that there is no guarantee that any future incursions from space can be contained in this way. Still, this is pretty much par for the course, and in fact The Andromeda Strain is rather more cheerful than many of its contemporaries – Earth isn’t cracked open like an egg, or left a sterile industrial hell, or depopulated by a lethal virus. Maybe the movie makes the mistake of taking itself just a bit too seriously, but it’s still an impressively well-made, rather unusual SF film.

 

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It has become axiomatic that SF movies purporting to depict the future usually end up saying more about the time in which they were made – the fears and preoccupations that were prevalent at the time. To be honest, many of these don’t seem to have changed much down the decade: every generation seems worried about machinery going out of control, the threat of disaster and invasion, the dehumanising effect of technology – but every now and then you do come across something a bit more left-field. Michael Crichton’s 1973 Westworld is fuelled by a healthy dollop of techno-fear, but something which really marks it out as the product of its time is the presumption that, even in the future, the myth of the old west would still loom large in the American popular psyche.

Nearly forty years on, and the release of a major western is a newsworthy event – they’re just not made any more, at least not in anything like the quantities they once were. Westerns have been largely supplanted, ironically enough, by SF and fantasy. If you were to make a movie about popular fantasies these days, it would probably have to be called something like Tolkienworld, Zombieworld, or (even more ironically) Futureworld.

This does not stop Westworld being a classic movie, however. Set in the near future, the main characters are square-jawed alpha-male John Blane (James Brolin, looking uncannily like Christian Bale from some angles) and his rather less self-assured friend Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin). To help Martin get over a traumatic divorce, Blane is taking him to Delos, the world’s most advanced theme park. The three zones of the park recreate different historical periods in exacting detail, where the guests can live out their every fantasy.

Blane and Martin are visiting Westworld, the old west zone. Here there are robot horses to ride, robot townsfolk to interact with, robot prostitutes to – ah, you get the gist – and robot bad guys to gun down. Rather wonderfully, chief amongst these is a robot modelled after Yul Brynner’s character from The Magnificent Seven, who is therefore played (brilliantly) by Brynner himself, surely one of the most deft and inspired post-modern touches in mainstream cinema. However, while the two men enjoy their holiday, concerns are mounting behind the scenes at the park. For no apparent reason, the massively complex systems are slowly going out of the control of the technicians, and it’s only a matter of time before the fantasies the guests have paid for are being played out in deadly earnest…

Westworld is really a film in two parts. The first hour or so sets up the scenario and lays the foundations for the climax, and to be honest in the past I always found this section to be a little slow and lacking in focus. That said, watching it again, I can appreciate what a good job it does in establishing the characters of the two leads, and how many genuinely eerie moments it contains (for instance, Martin is disporting himself with a robotic prostitute, and – without him noticing – her eyes snap open to reveal a dead, metallic stare, even in the throes of simulated passion). It also says some interesting things, for those prepared to look for them – about how new technology is almost always initially employed to satisfy the most basic human desires (just cruise around the internet for a while and you’ll see what I mean), and about the unpleasant side of human nature generally: everyone at Delos is there to have their ‘dream holiday’, which for most of them seems to involve acts of violence, murder, and no-strings sex, all perpetrated upon the helpless park robots.

The techies at Delos can’t figure out why the breakdown rate at the park is inexorably increasing, but the film implies that the machines have acquired some form of unintended sentience and are gradually rebelling against their lot. This is slightly different from the usual ‘evil machines go on the offensive’ plot familiar from films like The Forbin Project or Demon Seed: it’s still a cautionary tale, but here the warning is not that technology itself is wrong, but the way in which we sometimes take it for granted. (It’s interesting to compare Westworld with its close relation Jurassic Park – another, rather similar Crichton story – in which the anti-technological message seems a bit more simplistic to me.)  Given the way most of the guests behave, one is almost inclined to start cheering the much-abused robots on as things go out of control in earnest in the final section of the film.

However, Richard Benjamin does such a good job of making Martin a likable, three-dimensional human being that you keep rooting for him to the end. There’s a moment when it suddenly dawns on him that the park has become ‘real’ and Brynner’s Gunslinger not only wants to kill him but is fully capable of doing it, and he carries it off without saying a word, just using his face and eyes.

From this point we’re into the climax of the film, which is a very different kind of animal, as Martin is relentlessly pursued by the Gunslinger around the park. This part was clearly a massive influence on the making of the original Terminator, but in some ways surpasses that film, partly due to its sheer simplicity, but also due to the quality of Yul Brynner’s performance. Brynner’s hardly in the film for the first hour or so, but he’s the making of the rest of it. Playing a killer robot double of yourself is not, you would have thought, the most engaging or demanding role, but Brynner appears to have completely invested himself in the part. SF cinema of the 70s and 80s is stuffed with people playing androids, robots, and other synthetic people, but few of them come anywhere close to Brynner in Westworld. Somehow he manages to drain all the humanity out of his performance, giving every movement and word a dulled, automatic quality. As a simple act of mime it’s remarkable: there’s a sequence near the end in which, accompanied by an unforgettably harsh and repetitive music cue, the camera follows Brynner as he stalks after Benjamin’s character – and it is like looking at a machine, Brynner’s movements are so mechanically precise and unvarying themselves.

And yet, even after all this, Brynner is still able to invest the Gunslinger with pathos as it tries to complete its objective even after being damaged. It’s a bit unexpected when this happens, given what has come before, but again Brynner is able to sell it. The film walks a fine line between keeping the audience sympathetic to Martin, and making them think the humans are getting what they deserve, but does so with notable success.

Westworld impresses me much more now than it did when I first saw it as a teenager. Back then I was rather dismissive of everything but the final chase, but looking at it again now I can see that this is a film with as many ideas and as much to say for itself as many other more intellectually celebrated SF movies. Good direction and terrific lead performances don’t hurt either. As usual with well-remembered old movies, we are threatened with a remake: but, again as usual, I really can’t see there being any point. This is a classic in the true sense of the word.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published in the 18th December 2003 Christmas issue:

My friends, the season of good cheer is upon us once again, and while it might be all too tempting to simply sit back, loosen the belt, watch the Queen’s speech and fall asleep in front of the Christmas Day Bond film (Tomorrow Never Dies, probably Brosnan’s weakest outing to date, but not without its moments), I would like you to take a moment to consider people less fortunate than we are. This is a time for caring and giving, and to this end I would like to launch the inaugural 24LAS appeal.

Yes, I would like us all to join forces and write to Amnesty in the hopes of securing the release of a talented young actor from the seemingly endless stream of crappy films he’s been in recently. Let’s call him Gerard Butler (mainly because that’s his name). Sure, he’s responsible for his own choices, as are we all, but Gerard’s problem is that he seems to be cursed with an unerring instinct for rotten scripts, something quite at odds with his impressive charisma and screen presence. Recently he’s popped up in Reign of Fire and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life, while lurking further down his CV are things like Dracula 2000 and Talos the Mummy (funnily enough he had an itty bitty part in Tomorrow Never Dies, too). You see my point. Nobody deserves that kind of luck.

And the final straw stirring me to action is Richard Donner’s Timeline, a tram-smash of a picture that (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor) does all but pluck and baste itself, extract its own giblets and climb into the oven. Based on a novel by Michael Crichton, whose cinematic pedigree is wildly inconsistent (on the one hand, Westworld, on the other, Congo), this is the tale of a bunch of variously dull and implausible archaeologists led by Billy Connolly. Yes, alarm bells are already starting to ring, aren’t they? Billy goes AWOL and his students (accompanied by his plank-like goon of an American son) discover his specs and a note pleading for help walled up in a French crypt that hasn’t been touched since the mid-14th century.

Yup, with the aid of a slimy cable-knit-sweater-wearing tycoon (David Thewlis, phoning it in) Billy has apparently faxed himself back to 1357 or thenabouts and it’s up to his son, his son’s girlfriend, Gerard, steely-eyed ex-marine Neal McDonough (whom you may recall from Band of Brothers or Minority Report), some French guy, and basically a couple of blokes in red shirts, to go back and fetch him. The mechanics of time travel are, quite properly, not explained, but seem to involve much use of mirrors (and possibly static electricity).

Once back in ye olden days, our heroes proceed to behave exactly like package tourists everywhere – bothering the locals, being rude about the accommodation, and generally acting ungrateful – ‘there’s one thing worse than dying in France,’ announces the leading lady, ‘and that’s living there.’ Inevitably they get mixed up in the Hundred Years War, specifically a seemingly-pointless feud between nasty Englishman Michael Sheen and noble Frenchman Lambert Wilson. Both Sheen and Wilson have given quality turns elsewhere this year (in Underworld and Matrix Reloaded respectively) but here bad dialogue and worse wigs scupper all their efforts. Wilson is saddled with Anna Friel as his sister, and her French accent appears to originate from somewhere just west of Walthamstow.

Well, as you can probably gather, this film really is a piece of crap. The script seems to be a homage to a 1970s children’s TV serial, and – impressively – manages to be simultaneously predictable and logically unsound. History apparently gets changed without anyone noticing, subplots appear and disappear rather capriciously, and the film spends lots of time emphasising certain points only to casually contradict itself only seconds later.

And the worst of it is, is that Gerard seems to be giving up hope of ever appearing in something classy. In Reign of Fire and Cradle of Life he made a distinct impression – but here his performance is never more than okay. That’s no bad thing, especially considering many of his co-stars are epically awful. Special mention must be made of Billy Connolly’s staggeringly terrible performance, which eventually just consists of him wandering about with a look of boggle-eyed consternation on his face as he shouts his dialogue. But we should arrange to have Gerard airlifted away from all this as soon as possible. Just send me your blank cheques and I’ll sort it all out.

Even so, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a turkey, and perhaps a little compassion wouldn’t go amiss. Okay: Timeline is irredeemably rotten, but it has some reasonable cinematography and a quite diverting siege sequence. But if sieges and swordplay are your thing, just now you can probably find better, and better value for money, somewhere else. See you all in the New Year.

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