In the Age of Crichton
(Excerpt from upcoming article series)
As Jurassic World sweeps from theaters to streaming platforms and Westworld wraps a mind-breaking second season; as Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment develop Pirate Latitudes and Bruce McKenna and Graham Yost ready Dragon Teeth; as Noah Wyle wraps directing, producing and starring in a hit show and prepares his next movie in Red Line; as Laura Dern appears in ads for her next drama on HBO; along with Sean Connery, George Clooney, Paul Walker, Richard Donner, Frank Marshall, Helen Hunt, Chris Pratt; like a rainswept rainforest Michael Crichton’s imagination has launched or touched countless careers in entertainment.
Michael Crichton is a name many have heard, but few know for his accomplishments, even fewer for his genius. Known as “The Dinosaur Man” by Time Magazine, “The Hit Man” in Vanity Fair, Michael Crichton should be known for more — he was one of — if not the — greatest mind of our time.
A fountainhead for a media empire, he was an intellectual and an adventurer who preferred research, reading, traveling and hiking to the spotlight. In one interview he confessed to reading sixty books a year. Dinosaurs are named after him.
He became an expert in any field of interest. Whether anthropology, marine biology, avionics, genetics, quantum theory, African big game behavior, African jungles, medical science, climate science, 1850s England, the American west in the 1870s or nanotechnology (as in his terrifying techno-thriller Prey), there is no area of interest in which he did not become an authority and one of if not the most effective teacher.
His prowess was not limited to writing, either. He is the only person to have the number one book, movie and TV show in the country at the same time (twice). He was the first director to use CGI in a film, he was a friend to painter Jasper Johns, he has testified before Congress.
Lifelong friend and fellow author Max Byrd told me that Crichton was “above all, a contrarian.” In the age of social media likes and follows; a polarized “Crossfire” culture (to quote Crichton), a contrarian is something of a cowboy, and a much needed hero to the current cultural narrative. A scientist is, by definition, a contrarian. Crichton, a scientist who transcended science as much as an entertainer who transcended entertainment, said “the greatest scientists in history are great because they broke with the consensus.” There is no greater call to be a contrarian than that sounded by the historical precedent of scientific discovery, and no greater model in the modern world perhaps than Crichton himself. Crichton saw the popularization, and religious-like fervor around science in the media as something completely unscientfic, and he had the courage to ask questions. He did it while simultaneously thrilling millions.
Crichton didn’t simply bring dinosaurs back to life; he figured out how and then showed us the dangers of tinkering with extinct species. He didn’t simply write a mystery thriller, he taught us aircraft mechanics and media bias; he didn’t just write about aliens, he psychoanalyzed our draw to the fantasy of extraterrestrial life. He wasn’t simply a writer; he was a doctor, anthropologist, novelist, screenwriter, game designer, director, producer, historian, watch collector, art collector, scuba diver, father and husband.
Brilliance is not without controversy. Crichton has been occasionally criticized, even attacked when perceived to be on the wrong side of an issue — for breaking with popular thought, with concensus. Then Senator Hillary Clinton dismissed his senate testimony as simply that of a “fiction writer” before walking out on him. At the release of Disclosure, he was attacked as sexist. Among other pop journos, the writer of a Vanity Fair article on Crichton cited talk show hosts and entertainers to point out Crichton’s errancy for having dared to question the politicization of global warming in his extraordinarily researched State of Fear.
Arguing with Crichton is something he welcomed; he debated his own Jurassic Park research in The Lost World. The inclination, however, to say that he is “wrong” is to ignore the very core of his genius. That Crichton broke with popular theory on issues of the politicization and commercialization of genetic research (Next), the gender dynamics of sexual harassment (Disclosure), theories of species behavior and extinction (The Lost World), to be dismissive, read selectively, or brush aside Crichton’s narratives is to devalue what we should be celebrating: a truly scientific approach that assumes nothing, doesn’t seek company and is completely apolitical.
Crichton’s mind was a knife that cut through media bias and political slant. He had no political allegiance, arguing with — but mainly, perhaps, hoping to educate — both sides. He criticized the “Crosspoint” culture that pitted us against each other, allowing for only embittered polarization.
Crichton didn’t leave Harvard for a cheap profession, as he worried at the time when trying to hide that he wrote the spy novels that paid for his medical school. He left the medical field in disagreement with the entire nature of the practice; his mind already outpacing his peers, and eventually finding a place where he was truly peerless. To his new colleagues in Hollywood, he quickly became a master of pop culture, an “icon.”
Calling Crichton a “pop culture icon,” however, diminishes what he actually brought to the world. Crichton was a perpetual student and teacher, and he exemplified the best of both: as a student his insatiable desire for learning never ceased, and he patiently and voraciously tore into any new subject. As a teacher he found the most compelling and engaging ways to share what he knew with others, gently guiding us, his students into questions. A student of his body of work will understand that he didn’t teach us facts, but how to think of questions for ourselves. How to approach, question and debate any subject. “If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything” Crichton quotes at the beginning of Timeline. In all things Crichton clearly made a superhuman effort to be first a student.
Richard Donner told me that “when I [say] Michael is a great man, I don’t mean simply that he was tall. He towered intellectually over anyone in the room.”
Most see Crichton as “the dinosaur man” if they are aware of him at all. He was, however, a titan of intellect and talent the world experiences once a generation, if we’re lucky.
That our time no longer coincides with his is one of the greatest losses to a world that needs a lucid, contrarian and erudite voice — not to mention great entertainment — now more than ever.