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Certainly, Michael Crichton is better known as an author. His novels include such titles as Jurassic Park, Congo, Rising Sun, The Andromeda Strain, and Sphere, but at one time he was seen equally as a film director, often working from his own original screenplays or adapted versions from his own source novels. From the early 1970's into the mid 1980's, Crichton wrote and directed a series of (mostly) imaginative science fiction films, many of which incorporated wildly satiric views of a future obsessed with media, celebrity, technology, and of course, little toys and games. And, for me, it's the little toys and games that are what's most fun about his movies.

Crichton's first feature film, Westworld - in all fairness, he did direct the made-for-TV Ben Gazzara starrer Pursuit the year before, based on his own novel, but that, my friends, is a different story. Anyway, Westworld is an interesting view of a futuristic American society gone mad - obsessed with role-playing, virtual reality, and fanatical escapism. Westworld is part of a futuristic amusement park, which offers guests the opportunity to live out fantasies in a realistic setting populated exclusively by robots. The story follows Richard Benjamin and James Brolin as two everyday guys vacationing in the western-themed part of the park (other themes include Romanworld and Medievalworld). There, the men drink beer and rye in authentic saloons, frolic and fornicate with attractive robot prostitutes, and duel at high noon with robot gunslingers. One gunslinger in particular, played by Yul Brynner, seems to hold a grudge with the two men, picking gunfights with them time and time again. Thankfully for the patrons, the gunslingers are all programmed to lose. However, somewhere along the way, the robots malfunction, and begin to win. The bulk of the movie is a gripping thriller, which follows Benjamin's character trying to flee the park and escape the wrath of Brynner's cold psychotic gunslinger. There aren't too many fun little toys in this one, but the theme park really acts like one big toy, and of course, no one says "Draw." like Yul Brynner.

By 1981, Crichton was on his fifth feature, and was growing into full-fledged futuristic conspiracy mode. In the film Looker, models and actors are body-scanned into a computer system. The computer then stores their likeness forever, and can then digitally add their walking-and-talking persona into any form of media for any purpose (but its used mostly for television commercials). Seeing the possibilities of a SAG-less acting work force for which to peddle cleaning products, fast food, automobiles, and even politicians, corporate madman James Coburn begins having his models offed by a heavily-moustached hit man. Unfortunately for Coburn (and the hit man), all the models turn out to have the same plastic surgeon. The surgeon, Dr. Larry Roberts (played by Albert Finney) begins to fear for the life of his patients, especially the striking Cindy (Susan Dey), and decides to try and solve the crimes himself. The main toy on display in this fun movie is a weapon that, when fired, shoots a beam of light that mesmerizes its target for ten or fifteen minutes, rendering them helpless. This little gun makes for one of the coolest chase scenes I've seen, and a dangerous one at that, as Finney and the hit man try and mesmerize one another while driving down a freeway.

Three years later, Crichton directed Runaway, arguably Crichton's most gadget-filled vision of our not-too-distant future American society. In the time the story takes place, robots have been fully integrated into our lives to handle both menial domestic and security jobs as well as dangerous construction and agricultural work. On occasion, a robot will malfunction and go awry - these robots are called "runaways". Due to insurance purposes, the police have been asked to deal with runaway robots. Tom Selleck plays Jack Ramsey, a police sergeant on the "Runaway Squad" who had to ditch the regular force because of vertigo. Now, he spends his time answering runaway calls, which usually require nothing more than the flipping of a switch to turn off a confused robot. However, a grisly mass murder of a suburban family by their domestic droid puts Ramsey in the middle of a real criminal investigation. As it turns out, a sick maniac named Luthor (played decently, and with great 80's hair, by KISS bassist Gene Simmons) may be behind the murders and at the same time developing a new weapon - "smart bullets" which can be programmed to hit a specific target or person. These bullets give Crichton the opportunity to once again, stage a memorable chase scene as Selleck's cop chases a suspect through a series of urban back alleys while Simmons' Luthor stands blocks away firing corner-turning bullets at them.

Besides the smart bullets, developments featured include retinal identification machines, a virtual reality sketch artist, floating police cameras, sushi-robot vending machines, the non-stop video news coverage of all police activity, well-respected and utilized police psychics, and of course, little metallic robot spiders equipped with poison needles that leap onto their victims throat, stab them with the poisoned needle, then burst into an explosion of fire and sparks. Crazy shit, man. I love movies with futuristic gadgets.

-- Paul Kermizian


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