Friday, December 02, 2011

Dr. Crichton Meets Dr. Cyclops

“Micro,” partially written by Michael Crichton and completed by Richard Preston, is the second Crichton novel published posthumously, following 2009’s “Pirate Latitudes.” While an improvement on that woeful enterprise, which read like an extended movie treatment, “Micro” suffers from a silly premise for a techno-thriller, particularly one created by the king of the genre: lured to a jungle in Hawaii, young Harvard researchers run afoul of a crazed venture capitalist (a redundancy, perhaps) who had hoped to engage their expert services for a top-secret project his company is conducting at its jungle facility.
The first hundred or so pages set the plot in motion through a series of ridiculous machinations that introduce characters so thin as to appear nearly transparent (which might have made for a better story, come to think of it; it could have been Crichton’s take on “The Invisible Man”). The dialogue is packed with so much scientific jargon that it sounds like people reciting from arcane academic papers. All this effort to lure the reader into believing a new technology has been created that allows for miniaturization of everything, including people, which is exactly what happens to our intrepid, sniping band of researchers forced to work its way through the dangers of the jungle after reduction to the size of fingernail.
Reviewers have mentioned sections of “Gulliver’s Travels,” Richard Matheson’s classic 1956 novel, “The Shrinking Man,” and Disney’s 1989 fun family film, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” as possible inspirations for “Micro.” And who could forget Raquel Welch in skin-tight scuba gear swimming through some guy's arteries in 1966's "Fantastic Voyage"? I’ll throw in a wonderful episode of “The Avengers” from 1967 entitled “Mission . . . Highly Improbable” in which Steed and Mrs. Peel are miniaturized.
But the true inspiration—and one I’ve yet to see mentioned in reviews—has to be 1940’s “Dr. Cyclops,” likely the first science-fiction film made in Technicolor, and a bounty of decent effects in an era when such work was still in the gestating stage. The plot* alone reads like a blueprint for “Micro”: A mad scientist, Dr. Alexander Thorkel (an excellent Albert Dekker) invites three colleagues to his lab in the Peruvian jungle. They are accompanied by a local miner who suspects that Thorkel is secretly mining ore. The scientists discover that Thorkel has brought them there only to identify some crystals under his microscope, since his eyesight is too poor for him to see them himself (hence Dr. Cyclops). Their job done, he now wants them to leave.
They discover that Thorkel is attempting to shrink living organisms using radiation. When he finds them snooping in his laboratory, he locks them inside his radiation chamber, shrinking them to twelve inches.
The movie details their trek as they hack their way through a jungle of gigantic foliage and do battle with oversize wildlife.
If this isn’t the basic plot of “Micro,” I don’t know what else out there is.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, “Dr. Cyclops” aired regularly on local stations in the New York area (as well, I’m sure, in other major cities). Michael Crichton grew up on Long Island, and given Crichton’s imagination I would think “Dr. Cyclops” would be a film he’d have seen, and probably remembered fondly—as I remember so many of Crichton’s earlier entertainments. The late Michael Crichton sold more than 200 million books, a testament to his skills as a storyteller who often injected interesting ethical questions about science and nature. “Micro” is not one of his best efforts. Instead of reading the novel, I’d microwave some popcorn (speaking of micro), rent “Dr. Cyclops” and see what magic Hollywood could conjure more than 70 years ago.
* Thanks to Wikipedia for the movie’s plot points. It's been a few decades since I've seen "Dr. Cyclops"--and these days I'm lucky if it doesn't take ten minutes to find my car keys.


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