Thursday, November 6, 2008

Andromeda Strain claims last victim

Michael Crichton passed away yesterday after a long bout with cancer. He gifted us with some great airplane novels, in which he repeatedly warned us of the dangers of technology without ethics. He also warned us about "sneaky Japs" and "power-hungry bitches" but we'll forgive him his '90s excesses. His novels gave us some very memorable movies, which I'll recall here in order from worst to best.

11. Congo
Bruce Campbell be damned, this movie is MST3k material. The book is even more hilarious; a crew is sent deep into the jungles of Zaire to seek blue diamonds that will be used as super-powerful computer memory chips. They bring along a gorilla researcher with a gorilla named Amy, who speaks sign language. They are of course led by a woman with a chip on her shoulder, but she dies in a lava flow for her hubris. They tone this down for the movies, but Crichton seemed to like making man-hating lesbian characters (as in Sphere), or women in power and then killing them off. They end up at a forbidden temple still guarded by a race of trained warrior gorillas who smash your head open with special stone clubs designed for the task. Really.


10. The Lost World
I am told the book is much better, but this movie has been railed against endlessly by nerds with much more rage than I can conjure. All I can say is Gymkata vs. velociraptors, and T. Rex family values? What the flying fuck?



9. Looker
This movie is a future '80s Trash of the Week; James Coburn plays an evil corporate operative for a company that is plotting world domination through mind control. Albert Finney, a plastic surgeon, gets involved when TV models keep coming to him for surgeries to adjust their chins by so many millimeters, their breasts by this many; they are conforming to measured stats of perfection. But in the end they are unnecessary; their perfect bodies are being scanned by computer, so their image can be used long after their plastic boobies sag to the floor.


The bad guys also have a cool-looking light gun that makes you black out, so they can easily frame you or kill you as you sleep. This boobie-laden '80s thriller predicted that we'd be seeing computer-generated Fred Astaire selling vacuum cleaners. They plan on mind control through advertising, which is sort of redundant, really. James Coburn is great as the villain, and we see a lot of naked Susan Dey. There was even a theme song written by Kim Carnes, of "Bette Davis Eyes" fame. It's great '80s trash and I can't wait to rent it and go into obsessive detail.


8. Runaway
Killer robots in your home! Gene Simmons plays a psychotic terrorist who can reprogram robots, which are now everywhere, into murder machines! He has little spider-bots that inject acid into your veins, which somehow creates sparks. And he's got a big fuck-off gun with heat-seeking bullets. Tom Selleck defeats him with his porn 'stache. I reviewed this in excruciating detail as an '80s Trash of the Week, here.



7. Rising Sun
In the late '80s we were terrified that the Japanese were going to buy America and make us all eat sushi, turning us into yuppie scum. Crichton once again had his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist, with this xenophobic movie about a woman murdered in a high rise owned by a Japanese corporation, and how bad-ass Sean Connery is with his white beard. Wesley Snipes plays a cop investigating the murder, but he needs Connery-san as a guide to the strange and sneaky culture of those wily Japanese, who want to buy up all our classic cars and kill our women.

Most of the movie involves Connery handpicking the peculiarities of Japanese culture to prey on our fears. While I've been to Japan and liked it, I certainly am not an apologist for the uglier side of their mores, but this was a bit much. They get followed around by some goon friends of the lead suspect- the rich son of an industrial magnate, who winds up dead himself- which leads to my favorite scene in the movie. To escape the yakuza dudes in their Impala convertible, Snipes leads them into Compton, where we find the only people scarier than rich Japanese are poor black folks. If it shows up on cable, it's worth seeing for Snipes and Connery reinforcing our ignorance.



6. Twister
He wrote this? I had no idea. It's a fun movie with Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt as those crazy storm chasers. At least technology is not to blame here, but nature. The effects are still quite good, and the plot- that they want to put a device in the middle of a tornado to help model it- is at least plausible, and gives us plenty of chances to see twisters tear up the countryside. Cary Elwes plays the bad guy, chewing up scenery like an F5 tornado. This blockbuster began the "nature disaster" genre that culminated in steaming turds like The Day After Tomorrow, but it's still fun to watch.



5. The Great Train Robbery

This is a change of pace for Michael, and is his "good Connery" film. Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland decide to rob the safe on a steam train in ol' Victorian-era England. I love a good heist film and this is a classic as Victorian sneak thieves who have to con four keys from their rightful owners to get wax impressions, and all other sorts of chicanery. Sutherland plays a pickpocket and con man, and instead of making this another nail-biting heist movie, the dry humor is played up. I'll always remember how Connery sneaks onto the train, a surprise I'll leave you to discover. I wouldn't want to let the cat out of the bag. This movie is great fun and we should all rediscover the glory of the muttonchop moustache.



4. The 13th Warrior
Imagine the rest of this small review put to "Immigrant Song" to get the proper effect. This underrated film suggests the "true story" of Beowulf; Viking villages are under attack by a primitive tribe who swarm from their underground dens to pillage and slaughter. Hey, that's our job, say the Vikings, and put together a team of heroes to kick some ass. Antonio Banderas plays an Arab traveling to the uncivilized lands of the north, who gets roped in to helping them defeat the horde. Based on a novel called The Eaters of the Dead, originally it dealt with undead warriors rising from the barrow mound tombs of Viking heroes, but the movie is much more interesting.

The primitive cannibal tribe survive by stealth and subterfuge, swarming in huge numbers and leaving no survivors to track them back to their holes. Viking swordplay action is in great abundance, and the guys who play Vikings are actual Scandinavian fellows, unlike Banderas the Hispanic Arab. He does a fine job, and even gets into the fray with a curvy scimitar. Best line: "Can I give your sword to my daughter when you are dead?" It may not be the best Viking movie, but I'm hard-pressed to think of a better one. Pathfinder was pretty horrendous. So turn off your brain and imagine Vikings defeating a lost cannibal tribe... and you'll have a lot of fun.


3. Westworld
This '70s classic built the foundation for Jurassic Park, since it's about an amusement facility for decadent, sedentary slobs who want to relive the glorified past- the Wild West, Medieval Times, or the Glory of Rome. The parks are littered with robots, and everything goes insane when they decide they don't want to be willing victims; they want to win! Yul Brynner was iconic as the Black Hat Gunslinger, emoting with just those steely eyes. This one's a bona fide classic, and the bleak ending- with our protagonists merely escaping, and leaving the robots to rule their domain until the power goes out, was chilling.



2. The Andromeda Strain
This is one of few "hard SF" films out there, and it was the first based on a Crichton novel. Although it has similarities to H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds in a way, it's an engaging combination of mystery, horror, and unfortunately at the end, laser-happy thriller. But the beginning! A crack team of scientists is enlisted to investigate an outbreak in a remote desert town where a space capsule has landed. Most of the populace have perished, except for an old man and a baby- and the area is still "hot," so anyone unprotected has their blood crystallize. Which is pretty horrifying, if it's your blood that's crystallizing.

The 'virus' seems to attack electronics as well, and it's genuinely compelling watching the scientists figure out what is actually going on. The ending is a bummer, because they decide to give it some action, as someone needs to disarm something or press a button, and there's a laser battle. Thanks, Star Wars! Now everything science fiction needs lasers. It's a good thriller in its own right, and still holds up today. I did not watch the new TV version. No need to, this one's still good.


1. Jurassic Park

Can any of his movies top this Spielberg-helmed leviathan? Sure, it has its flaws ("this is Unix, I know this" and "you protect yourself from an island full of dinosaurs with an electric fence and a shotgun?") but it's a terribly enjoyable film that really captures that child's sense of wonder and imagination when we meet the dinosaurs. It takes plenty of leeway with velociraptors, but compared to the sequels- where dinosaurs have family values- this is hardly worth griping about. The special effects stand up today as some of the best use of computer graphics put to film, and in many scenes, such as the kitchen hide 'n seek with the raptors- it's difficult to tell what is animated and what is real.

I enjoyed the book a lot more- Richard Hammond, the father of the park, gets his comeuppance for his hubris, there's a lot more gore as raptors like to tear our your belly, and the big game hunter tasked with guarding the island wisely has shoulder-mounted rockets on hand to kick some dino ass-- but the movie deserves to be recognized as a classic, and one of Spielberg's best films (especially of late). Sure it's Westworld with a Tyrannosaur subbing for Yul Brynner, but why mess with success? That's entertainment.



So if you ignore the '90s Political Correctness era when Crichton wrote Disclosure, in which Michael Douglas once again faces a woman who won't be ignored, and Rising Sun, where he pandered to our baser feelings about foreigners, he's written some very enjoyable novels that have been made into some of the most memorable movies of the last few decades. Admittedly, I only own Jurassic Park. I'd definitely watch The 13th Warrior again, and should pick that up on Blu-Ray when I finally get a player. So, rest in peace Mr. Crichton. We'll overlook your cranky political views of your senior years and enjoy your well-crafted stories. I sincerely hope that your Heaven is not an amusement park full of robot dinosaur angels.

1 comments:

sarah said...

i blame my poor eyesight on this man - reading his books in the middle of the night with my fish tank light at 13.

Dont forget to watch Coma.

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