‘Westworld’ Honors Michael Crichton; ‘Jurassic World’ Doesn’t

  • A scene from “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.” MUST CREDIT: Universal Pictures.

The Washington Post
Thursday, July 05, 2018

If you were to boil down author Michael Crichton’s ethos into a single sentence, it might sound something like this: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

This is, of course, Ian Malcolm’s (Jeff Goldblum) famous line in the original Jurassic Park. This theme is a through line in Crichton’s work, and it gives his art a resonance even after his death. Artists adapting his stories make a mistake when they jettison this idea: It’s why the Jurassic World movies are little more than unmemorable fluff while Westworld offers audiences something more to chew on amid its seductive sex and violence.

Crichton’s novels are rife with his admiration, and fear, of technological advances. The Terminal Man, for instance, is about the dangers inherent in mucking about with one’s brain to cure a disease; an epileptic tries to control his blackouts using computers, only to go nuts as a result. In Prey, humanity learns how to use nanotechnology — a miraculous substance that could greatly benefit mankind — and narrowly averts its own destruction at the hands of semi-sentient gray goo. Next revolves around bioengineering efforts that, rather than aiding us in our quest for ever-longer life, rapidly turn deadly.

And then you have Jurassic Park, Crichton’s best-seller about John Hammond’s efforts to resurrect dinosaurs from extinction via advanced cloning techniques to make gobs of money at a luxurious theme park where T-Rexes chow down on goats for the edification of the kiddos. As we all remember, those dreams don’t exactly pan out, and the dinosaurs end up killing humans more or less at will until the few remaining survivors are forced to flee Isla Nubar in terror.

Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation of Crichton’s novel hews to the theme of the book nicely, and its success highlights the ways in which the more recent Jurassic World films are something of a disaster.

In Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs are a force of nature unleashed by man, killing wicked and righteous alike: The greasy lawyer Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) and the corrupt techie Nedry (Wayne Knight) fall prey to the giant lizards just as our beloved techie Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson) and fearsome hunter Muldoon (Bob Peck) do. Even at the end of the film, when the Tyrannosaur grabs onto a raptor — a dino ex machina that allows our heroes to flee — it’s not as though the king of lizards is doing it as a favor or at the behest of the people in the park. It’s simply the food chain in action.

Contrast that with the JurassicWorld films, in which the dinosaurs are repeatedly used as allies by the humans: Owen (Chris Pratt) trains a team of raptors and develops a bond with their leader, Blue, which he then uses to take down the Indominus rex. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) coaxes a T-Rex into doing battle with the Indominus at the end of the first film. In both Jurassic World and its sequel, Fallen Kingdom, protagonists are left untouched by the dinosaurs while annoying characters — Claire’s dumb assistant and a contractor played by Vincent D’Onofrio in the first film; a wicked capitalist (Rafe Spall), a wicked mercenary (Ted Levine) and a wicked auctioneer (Toby Jones) in the second — all meet rather gruesome fates.

The implicit lesson of these films is almost the opposite of the explicit lesson of Jurassic Park. There’s an insinuation that these creatures can be controlled, that they have the right to exist alongside us. Sure, they’re dangerous, but only to bad people.

HBO’s Westworld, on the other hand, stays true to Crichton’s vision of the world, one in which a little technological knowledge goes a long way to ensuring the demise of mankind. Based on a 1973 movie of the same name written and directed by Crichton, Westworld just wrapped up its second season by revealing that the folks behind the amusement park have been copying the brains of humans in an effort to perfect their artificial-intelligence systems.

Combined with the fact that the robots in the park — which are subjected to various humiliations, sexual abuse and degrading violence — have been reprogrammed to remember what happens to them before each time they are reset and placed back into the park’s ecosystem, the brain trust behind Westworld has created a perfect Crichtonian dilemma: We have the technology, but not the wisdom to mothball it. If the final moments of the second season are any indication, these scientists have sown the seeds of mankind’s destruction.

Westworld has its issues (the overly complex temporal structure of the show, for starters, and its obsession with serving as a meta-commentary on prestige cable writ large), but at least it has an idea at its center, one that reflects the life and work of the man who originally conjured it up. For that reason, if no other, it will always be superior to the nonsense of Jurassic World and its sequels.