Though critics hailed Jurassic Park as a return to blockbuster form for director Steven Spielberg after a mini-slump in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, it’s also the high water mark for the movie career of best-selling author Michael Crichton. A Harvard med school student moonlighting as a novelist (most of his early books were published under pseudonyms), Crichton left the medical profession for good in the late 1960s and in his writing established a thematic pattern of technological or biological systems gone awry. The ‘70s appetite for disaster flicks also helped launch his burgeoning film career, notably in the Jurassic Park progenitor Westworld, about a theme park overrun by malfunctioning robot ‘actors.'
Though a whopping 13 of his books have been adapted into feature films, it took the success of Jurassic Park to boost Crichton’s Hollywood profile into the stratosphere. On the occasion of Jurassic’s 20th anniversary 3D re-release in two weeks, I decided to take a second look at a handful of films based on ideas from one of the premier high-concept yarn-spinners of the 1990s.
In the 1980s, a tide of Japanese investment in American corporations inspired a minor media hysteria fueled by paranoid fears of insecurity and espionage - at least until a crippling economic recession that severely weakened Japan’s economy throughout the 1990s. The exhumation of this economic boogeyman instantly dates Rising Sun (1993), but still it chugs along with a lurid tale of sex, death, and xenophobia, starring Wesley Snipes as a cop called to investigate the apparent murder of a call girl in the Los Angeles high-rise of a Japanese company. Snipes reluctantly accepts the assistance of Sean Connery, a retired police captain introduced as an expert in Japanese culture who nonetheless relates to his beloved people as if they were dangerous circus animals. (“The Japanese find big arm movements threatening,” he sternly warns.)
Rising Sun attempts to salvage its warmed over mismatched-partners premise with gratuitous Eszterhas-ian sleaze, earning the dubious distinction as one of the first mainstream films to bring erotic asphyxiation to the masses. Crichton’s interest in cutting-edge technology surfaces in the film’s key plot point: a doctored security camera video presented as the best way to blow early-90s minds. When a disbelieving Snipes expresses his skepticism, cyber-sleuth Tia Carerre haughtily sneers, “What, you don’t think videos can be altered?” and demonstrates how easy it is to swap his face with a video still of Connery’s. It’s a rare moment of personality in this repetitious, by-the-numbers thriller that was already woefully behind the zeitgeist before it was released.
Lumbering along in the wake of Jurassic Park was Congo (1995), another tech-infused jungle adventure story that tried to duplicate Jurassic’s success in tossing a bunch of colorful characters with competing agendas into a tense life-or-death struggle against nature. To say that Congo fails on this front would be an understatement. It’s more like a plunge into a smoking abyss of camp and terrible screenwriting with several unintentionally distracting cameos (Bruce Campbell! John Hawkes! Mr. Eko from Lost!).
The overcomplicated plot concerns a communications executive (Laura Linney) hoodwinking a Berkeley primatologist (Dylan Walsh) into leading an expedition to a remote corner of central Africa, for multiple stupid reasons including lasers powered by diamonds and a gorilla whose gestures are translated into speech by a virtual reality armband. Joining them are an inexplicably fey survival guide (Ernie Hudson) and an opportunistic Romanian looking for King Solomon’s fabled diamond mines (Tim Curry). While Hudson and Curry complete for the movie’s worst accent and Walsh registers as bland and gullible, only Linney emerges unscathed in a role that allows her to be an awesomely no-nonsense badass - by the climax of the film, she's howling ridiculous one-liners that would make Arnie blush. Directed by Spielberg’s long-time producing partner Frank Marshall and written by Oscar-winning scribe John Patrick Shanley, Congo’s ill advised attempt to re-capture lightning in a bottle instead produces a perversely fascinating hot mess.
The underwater sci-fi spectacular Sphere (1997) features arguably the most impressive cast of any Crichton adaptation, pulling in Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone (when she still commanded above-the-title billing), Samuel L. Jackson, and a young, fidgety Liev Schreiber (in a fitting homage to Jeff Goldblum’s tic-filled performances in the first two Jurassic films). But despite its intense star wattage and blockbuster aspirations, the Barry Levinson-directed film is best at delivering the tension of a superior TV bottle episode. Sphere takes place almost entirely in a high-tech laboratory at the bottom of the ocean floor, where a team of scientists is investigating a mysterious metallic orb that houses an extraterrestrial lifeform.
Hoffman is perfectly cast as the dry, nebbish psychologist who succeeds in divining the sphere’s emotional intelligence but is too late in fathoming its true intentions. His romantic chemistry with Stone, however, is less than convincing, as is the movie’s rather silly cop-out ending. And clocking in at more than two hours, Sphere displays a tendency towards narrative bloat that almost spoils the fast-paced, economical thrills of its first half. Still, it’s a surprisingly effective B-movie adaptation of an above-average Crichton novel that also includes Huey Lewis in a cameo as a helicopter pilot and Peter Coyote getting crushed by an emergency door, so that’s fun.
The awkward conceit of Timeline (2003) - the last feature film based on a Crichton novel to date - begins with the casting of the decidedly non-Scottish Paul Walker as the son of twinkly Scottish archaeologist Billy Connolly, and continues with the marriage of a hokey time travel story with a superficial re-creation of the sword-and-shield epic. After Connolly’s team discovers modern artifacts while excavating a French monastery, the professor visits the headquarters of the technology firm sponsoring the dig and mysteriously disappears. The corporate benefactors reveal that they've stumbled across a wormhole connecting medieval France to the present, and admit Connolly is stranded in the past and needs rescuing.
The zippy script initially does a good job of depicting the inevitable flailings and culture shock of Walker’s extraction team (which includes a pre-romcom Gerard Butler as a muscular academic). But the film quickly abandons any intellectual pretense as it morphs into a silly adventure tale where the visitors from the future improbably steer the outcome of a pivotal battle in the Hundred Years’ War. Superman and Lethal Weapon helmer Richard Donner lends a professional touch to sequences like an impressively-staged castle siege; however, most of Timeline wallows in the director-for-hire doldrums. It’s an uninspiring swan song for Crichton (who passed away in 2008), but like most halfway-decent adaptations of his work it succinctly captures the freewheeling promise of technology alongside its chilling potential for disaster.