Michael Crichton: an overview of his work

While reading about the new HBO series Westworld, I found out that it is based on the 1973 movie Westworld which was created, written and directed by the great Michael Crichton. I have been a longtime admirer of the man and big fan of his work. Because he sadly passed away at 66 in 2008 I thought to pay tribute to the man and his work by writing about him and giving you an overview of his work.

Well, not all of his work. I’ll focus of the science fiction related part of his work. Michael Crichton was a very prolific writer on many topics and maybe he is best known by the general (non-Sci-Fi enthusiast) public for creating one of the longest running dramas in TV history: medical drama ER. But, as said, I’ll go into his excellent science fiction work.


The Man, the Myth…

But first a bit of the man himself. Michael Chrichton was a writer and filmmaker, but although he never practiced medicine, he was trained as a doctor. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College, received his MD from Harvard Medical School, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, researching public policy. He taught courses in anthropology at Cambridge University and writing at MIT. Michael Crichton was also interested in computer modeling since the first computers became available in his work environment. His multiple-discriminant analysis of Egyptian crania, carried out on an IBM 7090 computer at Harvard, was published in the Papers of the Peabody Museum in 1966. His technical publications also included a study of host factors in pituitary chromophobe adenoma, in Metabolism, and an essay on medical obfuscation in the New England Journal of Medicine. He also translated his interest in computers into his writing and filmmaking. His feature film Westworld was the first to employ computer-generated special effects back in 1973. Michael Crichton’s pioneering use of computer programs for film production earned him a Technical Achievement Academy Award in 1995.

Michael Crichton’s first bestseller, The Andromeda Strain, was published while he was still a medical student. He later worked full time on film and writing. Michael Crichton’s books have been translated into thirty-eight languages and thirteen have been made into films. Of his books he has sold over 200 million copies.

Michael Crichton’s Sci Fi work in chronological order

1969 – Book: The Andromedia Strain

book-the-andromeda-strain“The United States government is given a warning by the pre-eminent biophysicists in the country: current sterilization procedures applied to returning space probes may be inadequate to guarantee uncontaminated re-entry to the atmosphere.Two years later, seventeen satellites are sent into the outer fringes of space to “collect organisms and dust for study.” One of them falls to earth, landing ina desolate area of Arizona. Twelve miles from the landing site, in the town of Piedmont, a shocking discovery is made: the streets are littered with the dead bodies of the town’s inhabitants, as if they dropped dead in their tracks. The terror has begun . . .”
movie-the-andromeda-strainThe Andromeda Strain was adapted into a movie in 1971 by Academy Award winning director Robert Wise. He won his Academy Awards for directing West Side Story and The Sound of Music, but still. Although this 1971 might be a bit dated visually, the questions raised, as in the book, are very relevant today. In my humble opinion, this is the best movie adaptation of a Michael Crichton book.

1969 – Book: The Terminal Man

book-the-terminal-man“Harry Benson suffers from violent seizures. When he becomes part of an experimental program that sends electrodes to his brain to calm him, he is in recovery. Until he discovers how to get those soothing pulses more frequently, and then escapes the hospital – on a murderous rampage with a deadly agenda …”



The Terminal Man was adapted in to a movie in 1975. Although generally ranked pretty low (5.9 on IMDB, 4.8 on Rotten Tomatoes) this movie is actually much better than the general public gives credit for. It well adapted from the book, great acting and, as in the book, the social critique is still very relevant today. As one Amazon-reviewer put it: “Replace the “wires in the brain” with today’s over-prescribed Ritalin, SSRI’s, and other similar drugs, and you will see the point.”. True that!

1973 – Film: Westworld

westworld-1973-movie-poster“For $1,000 a day, vacationers can indulge whims at the theme park called WESTWORLD. They can bust up a bar or bust out of jail, drop in on a brothel or get the drop on a gunslinger. It’s all safe: the park’s lifelike androids are programmed never to harm the customers. But not all droids are getting with the program.”



1980 – Book: Congo

book-congo“Deep in the African rain forest, near the ruins of the Lost City of Zinj, a field expedition is brutally killed. At the Houston-based Earth Resources Technology Services, Inc., a horrified supervisor watches a gruesome video transmission of that ill-fated group and sees a haunting, grainy, man-like blur moving amongst the bodies. In San Francisco, an extraordinary gorilla named Amy, who has a 620-sign vocabulary, may hold the secret to that fierce carnage. Immediately, a new expedition is sent to the Congo with Amy in tow, descending into a secret, forbidden world where the only escape may be through the grisliest death.”

movie-congoCongo was adapted into a movie in 1995. Originally, in the late seventies Michael Crichton envisioned Congo as a hommage to the classic pulp adventure tales by the likes of H. Rider Haggard (best know for his adventure King Solomon’s Mines). When he found out that he could not use real gorilla’s (remember, it was the seventies), Michael Crichton abandoned the project. The whole story and how Congo finally made it to the big screen, you can read in this excellent story on Den of Geek.

1981 – Film: Looker

movie-looker“Plastic surgeon Larry Roberts performs a series of minor alterations on a group of models who are seeking perfection. The operations are a resounding success. But when someone starts killing his beautiful patients, Dr. Roberts becomes suspicious and starts investigating. What he uncovers are the mysterious – and perhaps murderous – activities of a high-tech computer company called Digital Matrix.”

A classic eighties-style Sci-Fi thriller. Sometimes a bit cheesy, a few plot holes, music that makes you want to put an ice pick in your ears, but boy the eighties are awesome. Watch for reminiscence, and a good laugh. Especially when you are into the Netflix-hit Stranger Things.

1984 – Film: Runaway

movie-runaway“It is the future. A sinister plot is turning helpful robots into assassins, and a cop is caught in a deadly showdown with the madman controlling the killer machines. They were crafted for the purpose of serving man. But now, guided by an evil force, they’re committing murder in this fast-paced, futuristic action-adventure. Tom Selleck stars as Jack Ramsay, a sergeant in the Runaway Squad – a security force dedicated to the termination of defective or runaway robots. Ramsay and his assistant Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes) are called in when two electronic engineers meet violent deaths. They discovera link between the murders and the development of a terrifying new weapon by an evil mastermind. Ramsay and Thompson are attacked by murderous robots as they close in on the brilliant and insane electronics genius behind it all, Charles Luther (Gene Simmons). Then the deadly chase begins.”

A fun, Saturday night popcorn flick. And off course: the movie debut of Kiss’ Gene Simmons!

1987 – Book: Sphere

book-sphere“In the middle of the South Pacific, a thousand feet below the surface, a huge vessel is unearthed. Rushed to the scene is a team of American scientists who descend together into the depths to investigate the astonishing discovery. What they find defies their imaginations and mocks their attempts at logical explanation. It is a spaceship, but apparently it is undamaged by its fall from the sky. And, most startling, it appears to be at least three hundred years old, containing a terrifying and destructive force that must be controlled at all costs.”

movie-sphereSphere was adapted into a movie in 1998. The premise is  great: director Barry Levinson (won an Academy Award for directing Rain Main), and the lead parts for Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson. The critics didn’t like it though, and neither did the box-office. And I get it. It’s a bit derivative, and lacks suspension. Also, it suffers from a thing we know all too well from CSI –  over-explanation. Still, solid Friday night relaxing Sci-Fi material.

1990 – Book: Jurassic Park

book-jurassic-park“An astonishing technique for recovering and cloning dinosaur DNA has been discovered. Now humankind’s most thrilling fantasies have come true. Creatures extinct for eons roam Jurassic Park with their awesome presence and profound mystery, and all the world can visit them—for a price. Until something goes wrong. . . .”

With this book Michael Crichton inspired the movie that became part of the childhood of an entire generation. Love it!


movie-jurassic-parkJurassic Park was adapted into a movie in 1993. What’s there to tell, this is a movie that’s embedded in our collective memory. I remember going to the movies with my younger brother and two older cousins (I was thirteen at the time). It started a long obsession with dinosaurs for me. Warm memories.


1995 – Book: The Lost World

book-the-lost-world“It is now six years since the secret disaster at Jurassic Park, six years since the extraordinary dream of science and imagination came to a crashing end—the dinosaurs destroyed, the park dismantled, and the island indefinitely closed to the public. There are rumors that something has survived. . . .”




movie-the-lost-worldThe Lost World was adapted into a movie in 1997. I feel I am repeating myself, but again, I believe this movie is much better than you would expect based on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes reviews. It is a great sequel to Jurassic Park and to me a much more grow-up and grittier movie altogether. But you can’t beat the amazing feeling when seeing dinosaurs come to life on the big screen for the first time, I guess.


1999 –  Book: Timeline

book-timeline“In an Arizona desert, a man wanders in a daze, speaking words that make no sense. Within twenty-four hours he is dead, his body swiftly cremated by his only known associates. Halfway around the world, archaeologists make a shocking discovery at a medieval site. Suddenly they are swept off to the headquarters of a secretive multinational corporation that has developed an astounding technology. Now this group is about to get a chance not to study the past but to enter it. And with history opened up to the present, the dead awakened to the living, these men and women will soon find themselves fighting for their very survival—six hundred years ago.”

A fascinating book on time travel with the right amount of scientific background and a boatload of suspense. The only thing that put me off a little (just a little) was the insane amount of luck and knowledge the protagonists have.

2002 – Book: Prey

book-prey“Deep in the Nevada desert, the Xymos Corporation has built a state-of-the-art fabrication plant, surrounded by miles and miles of nothing but cactus and coyotes. Eight people are trapped. A self-replicating swarm of predatory molecules is rapidly evolving outside the plant. Massed together, the molecules form an intelligent organism that is anything but benign. More powerful by the hour, it has targeted the eight scientists as prey. They must stop the swarm before it is too late…”


At this point in Michael Crichton’s repertoire it is time to acknowledged something. Michael Crichton’s books follow a certain formula: (1) big corporation/underappreciated genius messes with some form of technology or scientific concept they/he/she don’t/doesn’t fully understand. (2) Previously unknown consequences of messing with the aforementioned tech or scientific concept materialize. (3) Doo doo hits the ventilator. (4) Que plot twist (5) Que awed readers. Nothing wrong with that. But, in this book there is a bit too much re-iteration of previously used concepts. To me, it reads like a combination between Jurassic Park and Timeline. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it. But I wasn’t blown away. And that is what I am used to with Michael Crichton books.

2006 – Book: Next

book-next“Is a loved one missing some body parts? Are blondes becoming extinct? Is everyone at your dinner table of the same species? Humans and chimpanzees differ in only 400 genes; is that why a chimp fetus resembles a human being? And should that worry us? There’s a new genetic cure for drug addiction—is it worse than the disease? Devilishly clever, Next blends fact and fiction into a breathless tale of a new world where nothing is what it seems, and genetic ownership shatters our assumptions.”


The last book published during Michael Crichton’s lifetime. Great critique of genetic engineering, patent laws and whether or not you body is truly yours. But as Prey, Next is not as compelling as Michael Crichton’s earlier work (e.g. Jurassic Park and Timeline)

2011 – Book: Micro (released posthumously)

book-micro“In the vein of Jurassic Park, this high-concept thriller follows a group of graduate students lured to Hawaii to work for a mysterious biotech company—only to find themselves cast out into the rain forest, with nothing but their scientific expertise and wits to protect them. An instant classic, Micro pits nature against technology in vintage Michael Crichton fashion. Completed by visionary science writer Richard Preston, this boundary-pushing thriller melds scientific fact with pulse-pounding fiction to create yet another masterpiece of sophisticated, cutting-edge entertainment.”


Sadly, Michael Crichton passed away before he finished this book. And I am sure that when he would have been able to finish it himself, it would have been a great read. Now, it’s fine. It’s definitely not Michael Crichton. I would recommend you to read this only if have a insatiable craving for a book that follows the Michael Crichton formula (taking the latest scientific advances and showing us their potentially terrifying consequences when things go wrong) and you have read all this other books.

So, to sum it all up: Michael Crichton was in one word: prolific. He made some great stuff. Not a lot off space-related Sci Fi (which I know you love), but certainly a lot things that you need to check out and some that are must-reads or must-sees, if you haven’t already.

Michael Crichton, he will be dearly missed.

About the Author Paul