When I was 13, a friend lent me a paperback copy of Sphere and I fell into a Michael Crichton wormhole.
I'd never read an author before who, in such a plain spoken way, made science fiction seem like science fact. It wasn't long before I was transported to his Jurassic Park, a Frankenstein story updated for modern day, where scientists genetically re-engineered dinosaurs to bring them back from extinction as the main attraction for a theme park. As anyone who saw any of its incredibly popular movie adaptations knows, things go horribly awry. Always.
And now, many years later, the book that was spun into a movie and then a movie franchise has found extended life in a live arena show dedicated to dinosaurs wreaking havoc.
Invited to a media-only presentation for Jurassic World Live Tour, my first thought as I was escorted through the bowels of American Airlines Arena was, Man, if only stage hands were responsible for South Florida highway repair projects. Within two and a half days of work, the production replicated the fictional island of Isla Nublar where a basketball court usually stood. But my second thought, as I was surrounded by TV news crews filming a scene from the show where Genie, the bigger-than-life-sized dinosaur puppet, trembles in fear from the giant I-Rex was: what would the late Michael Crichton think of this spectacle?
The main message of Jurassic Park was beware of science. Just because a scientist can conceive something, like reviving dinosaurs, doesn't mean it will be good for humanity. A secondary message was beware of mass entertainment. That fear was a running theme in Crichton's work, still evidenced on the HBO series Westworld that's based on the 1973 movie of the same name — which Crichton wrote and directed — where theme-park robots begin killing humans. There's no subtext you need to decipher to figure what Crichton thought about these kind of extravaganzas.
But even heeding Crichton's warning that such entertainment causes spiritual death, I couldn't help but geek out at Jurassic World Live Tour's presentation. There was a facsimile of the jeep Chris Pratt's character drove around in the recent movies. Even more impressive was they had an actual gyrosphere, the only functioning one in the world, they claimed. It's a see-through bubble pod that roams around Jurassic World and its stage show. During the 20 months of the show's pre-production, they turned a special effect into a working vehicle with the same seats as seen on the silver screen.
But the real stars of the show, as in all things Jurassic, are the dinosaurs. From ten yards away, these creations look as real as the animals you'd see at a zoo. They can't hurt you, your mature adult voice tells you. But that's probably what visitors to Jurassic Park and Westworld thought too.
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"We have seven species of dinosaurs within the 20 puppets. They range from pretty small to a 40-foot T-Rex," explains the show's puppet captain, Brittany Talbot, who also educated me that it's possible to get a University of Connecticut bachelor's degree in puppetry.
The cast and crew were a pretty diverse lot, among them a bevy of stuntpersons, a robot assembly-line repairman, and a pro drone flyer. Most of them signed up for the year-plus run that the show is scheduled to make throughout North America where they say the crowds of children and the adults responsible for them constantly drop their jaws in wonder at the dinosaurs.
But is this something the ghost of Michael Crichton would approve of, science providing us destruction for our personal entertainment? On the one hand, he wrote in Jurassic Park, "“You know, at times like this one feels, well, perhaps extinct animals should be left extinct.” But he also wrote, in Westworld, "There's no way to get hurt in here, just enjoy yourself."