Michael Crichton’s literary achievements made him a household name. His books have sold over 200 million copies worldwide and over a dozen of his narratives have been adapted into film and TV. But did you know that the bestselling author behind The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park was an accomplished filmmaker in his own right?
We rounded up a few of our favorite Michael Crichton movies—movies Crichton had a direct hand in making. And just like the author’s literary output, these films deliver something for every kind of genre fan—from political techno-thrillers and action-packed dramas to futuristic visions of technology run amok.
This 1972 made-for-TV movie about an impending terrorist attack marks Michael Crichton’s directorial debut. It’s based on the author’s techno-thriller Binary, which was published in 1972 under the pen name John Lange. The movie hews closely to Binary’s narrative: A wealthy political extremist threatens to release nerve gas on the city of San Diego during a political convention. Agent Graves (Ben Gazzara) takes on the case, igniting a propulsive race to track down the terrorist and disarm his plot before it’s too late. Also starring E.G. Marshall, and featuring Martin Sheen, Pursuit was well received when it aired in 1972. Its themes of political disorder and mass-casualty attacks remain as unsettling as ever.
That 1973’s Westworld, which Crichton wrote and directed, inspired the blockbuster HBO series nearly 50 years after its release is a testament to the electric potential of its narrative. The sci-fi flick also makes for killer techno-nightmare entertainment. In the dazzling future world of 1983, technology and entertainment have fused in provocative ways. An adult theme park run by the Delos Company invites its wealthy patrons to live out their wildest fantasies by entering a simulated historical “world” of their choosing—Medieval World, Roman World, or Westworld. Populating each themed compound are thoroughly life-like androids, which interact with the guests and bring their respective historical periods to life. Of course, these androids are harmless; they’re programmed not to kill. What could possibly go wrong, go wrong, go wrong… Starring Richard Benjamin, James Brolin, and an unforgettable Yul Brynner as the deadly android Gunslinger, Westworld sealed Crichton’s reputation as one of our best future-gazing storytellers.
Before he became a full-time writer, Crichton studied medicine—publishing a number of novels during his med school years under the pen name John Lange. So it makes sense that Crichton would helm this 1978 medical thriller as its screenwriter and director, which is based on Robin Cook’s novel of the same name. Dr. Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold) works at Boston Memorial Hospital, where a disconcerting pattern emerges. All around her, seemingly healthy patients are slipping into comas. Investigating the matter uncovers startling clues: each case traces back to the same operating room, with the comatose patients later moved to an off-site facility known as the Jefferson Institute. As tension mounts, Wheeler searches for the truth and uncovers a conspiracy within the hospital walls. Also starring Michael Douglas and Rip Torn, Coma was a success upon its release. Years later, the film’s chilling premise of doctors turned deadly still gets under your skin.
The Great Train Robbery
Crichton once again delivers an engaging cinematic experience dressed in period piece detail—with man’s greedy machinations replacing out-of-control automatons. Released in 1978, The Great Train Robbery is set in Victorian England and draws inspiration from a real-life event: the Great Gold Robbery of 1855. Sean Connery plays genteel master thief Edward Pierce who, along with screwsman Robert Agar (Donald Sutherland) and Pierce's mistress Miss Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down), hatches an elaborate scheme to rob a train of its gold. Crichton wrote and directed The Great Train Robbery, adapting it from his 1975 historical novel of the same name. The film won an Edgar for Best Motion Picture in 1980.
In the near future, technology is essential to our everyday lives—but what happens when the machines designed to serve turn against us? Crichton wrote and directed this sci-fi action thriller starring Tom Selleck, Cynthia Rhodes, Kirstie Alley, and (yep) Gene Simmons. Selleck plays Sgt. Jack Ramsay, an officer of the runaway division who tracks down and deals with malfunctioning robots. But when Ramsay steps onto the crime scene of a robotic homicide, he uncovers a deadly plot to construct killer devices. Let’s get real, friends: Runaway is not a perfect film. It received middling reviews from critics and was eclipsed at the box office by 1984 blockbusters like The Terminator, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Star Trek III. Nevertheless, late-night viewers hungry for a schlocky sci-fi treat from the 1980s will find much to love in Runaway, while Crichton’s ability to inspire awe and alarm in the high-tech worlds he creates is always impressive.
Crichton first conceived Jurassic Park in 1983, when he wrote a screenplay about cloning a pterodactyl from fossil DNA. That screenplay led to the author’s sci-fi bestseller, which was published in 1990. After selling the novel’s film rights to Steven Spielberg and Universal Studios, Crichton was hired on to write the script. David Koepp completed the final draft. The result, lest you need reminding, is one of the biggest movies the world has ever seen. A billionaire employs bleeding edge technology to bring dinosaurs back to life at an island theme park. But what begins as a dream made real soon transforms into a nightmare when…oh, forget it. You know the plot! From its stellar acting and incredible cast to the dazzling special effects that still feel futuristic, Jurassic Park is a sight to behold again and again.
Crichton co-wrote the screenplay for this epic disaster flick with his then-wife Anne-Marie Martin. The film stars Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton, two storm chasers who must work together to launch a high-tech weather tracking device—despite their marriage being on the rocks. Their mission sends them racing after cow-flinging, barn-obliterating tornadoes—and into the eye of the storm. Released in the summer of 1996, Twister was one of the highest grossing films of the year. Will it leave you pondering life’s great mysteries once the credits roll? Most likely, it will not. But the film’s explosive special effects and ensemble cast (including a charged performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman) are impossible to deny, making this one a wild joyride.
Honorable Mention: Dealing
While Crichton was not involved in the 1972 silver screen adaptation of his 1970 crime novel Dealing, we mention it here as an intriguing artifact of the author’s career. Penned by Michael and his brother Douglas Crichton, Dealing was first published under the pen name Michael Douglas. It follows a Harvard graduate who schemes to smuggle a duffle bag filled with marijuana from Berkeley to Boston. Needless to say, the deal goes south. Dealing delivers a wild trip through sixties drug culture from an author best known for his dark visions of the future; the New York Times called the novel “entertaining—slick and cool and savvy.” The film adaptation stars Robert F. Lyons and a young John Lithgow in his film debut as the campus drug dealer.
Featured from "Jurassic Park" via Universal Pictures